Over 1,000 people wearing white t-shirts with a black dot on the front of them gathered at Wilmot Park in Fredericton on a nippy and crisp day in early December 2010 to show their support for a New Brunswick treatment centre for youth with complex needs. Complex needs are defined as mental health illness, challenges, and/or behavioral and conduct disorders.
Participants filed along King Street and stood on the black dots marked on the sidewalk. They formed a human chain stretching from Victoria Health Centre to the N.B. Legislature. They held hands for two minutes making the expression “connect the dots” literal. The participants then marched to the legislature; their presence and message was accepted and welcomed by Premier David Alward and Minister of Social Development Susan Stultz. The newly elected Premier and Minister said they would review and consider the recommendations put forth by the organization, Development of Treatment Services for Mental Health in New Brunswick (D.O.T.S. N.B). D.O.T.S. N.B. is an organization dedicated to generating the political will needed to improve mental health services for children and youth.
Maureen Bilerman, the founder of D.O.T.S. N.B. and a New Brunswick mother whose child suffers from mental health issues, said in a press release by the Community Action Group on Homelessness that, “No family should ever have to go through the suffering that mental illness brings when the necessary services are unavailable, especially in matters of life and death. Ashley Smith’s family knows this all too well. It is our hope that we can help create a better future for other families struggling to secure services for their children. It is all we can do. But we cannot do it alone.”
Child and Youth Advocate, Bernard Richard, put out a report in January 2008 entitled Connecting the Dots: A report on the condition of youth-at-risk and youth with very complex needs in New Brunswick. The report laments a lack of mental health services, specifically for youth. Richard recommends establishing a Centre for Excellence, which will treat youth with complex needs.
Youth with mental health challenges are regularly sent to one of three places in the province. The Moncton Hospital has a child and adolescent psychiatric unit but is only designed for assessment purposes and not for long-term stays. The New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi is a correctional facility for delinquent youth and offers therapeutic services. Even though this is a youth facility, approximately two-thirds of the beds are currently occupied by adults because there is not enough space in New Brunswick prisons for all the adult prisoners. Youth who go to the Restigouche Hospital Centre mix with adults in the adult psychiatric ward. None of these places are designed to specifically treat youth with complex needs. The Miramichi Youth Centre comes close but the centre is meant for young offenders, not youth with complex needs. Richard’s report calls for decriminalization of youth with complex needs (p. 46-60).
Bilerman would like to see certain programs at this Centre for Excellence. She would like to see, “temporary places for youth and children in crisis, consistent support for families dealing with a child or youth with mental illness, and lastly better access to services for children and youth with mental illness including psychologists, social workers, educational liaisons and other professionals.”
At the federal level, the Harper government has committed to slashing social spending such as healthcare while throwing more money at building prisons. Correctional Services Canada’s net annual budget is predicted to reach $3.12 billion in 2012-2013. A large portion of this money is expected to go towards building new prisons. According to Richard, New Brunswick’s prison system is nearing over capacity.
Justin Piche, a prison justice activist, is quoted in an article by Robin Maynard in The Dominion, saying that the over-representation of marginalized populations in prisons, such as people living in poverty or First Nations peoples “indicates our inability to use appropriate services to address the needs of [these] populations. These populations are over-policed, over-prosecuted, they are sentenced in a disproportionate fashion, and this basically leads to their over-representation in prisons.” Youth with mental illnesses and complex needs are among the marginalized populations found in prisons. “It costs more to imprison people than it does to put money into community programs, which actually address real social ills,” continued Piche. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the average cost of an inmate in 2009-2010 was $162,373.
The next step for D.O.T.S. N.B., according to Bilerman is to create a board with the task of envisioning mental health in New Brunswick building upon the conclusions in Richard’s report. The main conclusion of the Connect the Dots report stresses the fundamental importance of a stable and loving family for youth with complex needs. (p.87) In addition, Richard is advocating for the creation of specialized foster homes that can care for youth with complex needs. Most of all, the Child and Youth Advocate is calling for a Centre of Excellence with qualified staff in the field of adolescent development.