The province is hiring a consultant to help create a five-year action plan for delivering mental health services in Manitoba.

The province is hiring a consultant to help create a five-year action plan for delivering mental health services in Manitoba.

"A lot of work and many reports have been commissioned in the last several years, including the VIRGO report, the Peachey report and the illicit drug task force report," Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery Minister Audrey Gordon said at a news conference Monday in Winnipeg.

Some of those reports' recommendations have already been implemented, she said.

"Now it is time to bring this work together under one umbrella," said Gordon, who announced the plan to make a plan outside the NorWest Community Youth Hub.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to requests for mental health counselling at the hub increasing by 500 per cent from January 2020 to March of this year, said executive director Nancy Heinrichs, who has 30 years of experience working in the sector.

"During this time, I have never seen a time when mental health is more important than now."

However, critics said what's needed now is urgent action to address Manitoba's mental health crisis — not another consultant's report.

"I am disappointed by the lack of urgency in response to the mental health and addiction needs of children and youth in Manitoba," said Ainsley Krone, acting Manitoba youth advocate.

"While I understand the need for ongoing community consultations and to hear the voices of those most impacted by services, this is a process that has been undertaken numerous times, notably with the VIRGO report in 2018, and has yet to inform significant improvements to the mental health and addiction systems for children and youth in Manitoba," Krone said in an email.

"Many people are going to lose their lives because of the non-action of this government," added NDP critic for mental health and addictions Bernadette Smith, who accused the Progressive Conservative government of stalling.

Between January and December 2020, 372 people in Manitoba died from overdose — an 87 per cent increase over 2019, according to Manitoba's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Harm-reduction strategies such as safe consumption sites could be saving lives but were removed from the VIRGO report by the province, Smith said.

"These aren't sites where people are just going to do drugs," the MLA for Point Douglas said. "They're actually getting... connected with resources — whether that's getting into detox, whether that's getting set up with a counsellor, whether that's using drugs safely because they've exhausted every vein in their body, or that they are getting a safe supply and not spreading blood-borne diseases.

"So all of these things are just compounded, and then here you have a government that's saying, 'Well, we're looking at it — we're going to develop another plan.'"

The Manitoba Liberals said the PCs appear to be putting off any meaningful action on mental health, after publicly agreeing in 2017 to $400 million in federal funding over 10 years for Manitoba to invest in home and community care, including palliative care, and mental health and addictions.

"Manitobans need treatment now, not another round of bureaucratic reshuffling," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in an email.

"This is a plan to plan to have a plan, when the PCs are sitting on $400-million in federal health funds."

However, Gordon said the five-year plan is necessary to provide services that are co-ordinated, effective and results-oriented and "to make it easier for Manitobans to access the right care at the right time at the right place."

She said the province has issued a request for proposal to hire a consultant, and expects to have one in place with public engagement opportunities starting this fall.

"This will help to ensure our priorities are your priorities," said Gordon, who was appointed minister in January.

The five-year action plan for mental health will be made public by the end of the year, the province said in a news release.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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