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  • Marty Gold

Addictions And Mental Health Needs Of The Jewish Community A Manitoba Election Issue

The problems of addiction and mental health continued to be at the forefront of Manitoba election activity on Tuesday, capped off by an election forum on Community Mental Health and Addictions at the Asper Jewish Community Campus co-sponsored by the Jewish Child and Family Service and Sarah Riel Inc.

I have been drawn deeper into the issues since last October when I began questioning the harm reduction policies of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, which was distributing upwards of 2 million free needles in the city of Winnipeg but was taking no responsibility for the "exchange" part of the program. The result was discarded dirty rigs chucked aside onto public and private property including parks, playgrounds, boulevards and parking lots, as needle return rates plummeted below 50%.

Meanwhile I had learned the needle exchange program was based on a 1996 study from Baltimore and has seemingly never been revised. The dramatic escalation of addicts injecting meth has also affected Manitoba Housing complexes and neighbouring areas.

The Liberal Party platform added a new proposal before the town hall as party leader Dougald Lamont, alongside Donovan Martin (candidate for Notre Dame), announced a promise to create a 24/7 Virtual Addictions Coordination Centre adapted from the Alberta model. He told the press conference that faced with long wait times and gaps in service delivery, families and people with addictions can get faster access to addictions advice and treatment. Lamont cited an example of a wait-listed patient from Manitoba who turned for help to the Alberta service and got it.

His plan includes a 24/7 addictions hotline and website which "allows for greater privacy and individuals would be able to self-refer for help without going through a physician". This proposal is aligned with Lamont's earlier pledges for more drug stabilization units, medically supervised detox, and expanding the number of addictions treatment beds.

Earlier Tuesday morning I had released a video interview with Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette expressing his support for a Morberg House proposal to get an unused care facility in his riding at 800 Adele to be restored to providing health services. It is equipped with secure detox units and other amenities. Since the former nun's residence is located in the Notre Dame constituency, I asked Lamont if it might fit into his 24/7 Virtual Clinic idea. He wasn't sure as he wants to ensure addiction services are spread across the province.

A few hours later the town hall was held with 125 people in attendance, many front-line health care workers from 21 agencies providing addiction treatment and recovery services. The meth crisis crosses all social and economic boundaries and the Jewish community has also been affected as I learned in detail.

At the election forum I was introduced to Cheryl Hirsh Katz of JCFS who told me " We have provided addictions service to about a dozen individuals and families with addictions in meth, opioids or sometimes both. We know that there are more out there and we are in the process of conducting a survey do determine the scope of how many are affected in our community. Currently services we provide include assessments and referrals, individual and family counselling, group support and programming, education and awareness initiatives and prevention practices"

"Meth came to our attention in 2015 with our first case. Since then, we have received more referrals each year, mostly clustered in males in their mid 20’s-mid 30’s. Primarily, the other addictions on our caseload include alcohol, crack/cocaine, cannabis, and gambling. With these combined addictions, the numbers are higher.  We suspect that because these are more longstanding and the meth and opioid are newer, we will see a rise in this as well."

I asked Cheryl, what additional resources does the Jewish community need to more effectively deal with the meth and opioid epidemic? 

"More awareness in our community to decrease stigma and increase JCFS capacity to provide the supports we require" she replied, explaining "Currently we have just under the equivalent of 1.5 staff to do all of this work.  With a greater capacity, we would be able to expand on the services listed above."

"Through our work, we have found that clients benefit from engaging in a Jewish milieu and find spiritual support and acceptance from their own community. To this end, a Jewish resource centre (either inpatient or community based) would benefit the many Jewish individuals and families struggling with addictions."

All four main parties were represented at the panel, hosted by CJOB morning show journalist Lauren McNabb. She noted "not a day goes by" without her listeners raising the issues. Generally the parties are committing to increasing access to mental health and addictions services, longer term reidential treatment, and supportive housing for recovering addicts and mental health patients, varying by degrees of spending and areas of emphasis.

One major divide between platforms is the flat N-O from the Progressive Conservative Party and leader Brian Pallister to a 'safe injection' site as a response to the meth crisis, a position supported by some leading treatment services as well as Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth.

Some of the comments and quotes from the candidates heard by the audience at the Berney Theatre included:

The Hon. Dr. Jon Gerrard, Liberal candidate seeking re-election in River Heights: Mental health and addictions have been the poor cousin to physical health in Manitoba. The party has committed to covering phsychological assessments of children under Medicare and his mention of the need to add mental health professionals to the available roster was the first time a candidate was interrupted by applause.

Andrea Shalay, Green Party candidate in Union Station: With children in Manitoba being diagnosed with mental disorders at a rate three times the national average, spending on helping them isn't an expense, it's an investment. They support a community based health model.

Uzoma Asagwara, New Democratic Party Candidate in Union Station: "I hear in my work every day how impacted (all Manitobans are), I see it in my neighborhood". A psychiatric nurse, she said that subtance abuse, mental health, poverty and other factors are all interconnected and inform the NDP's apporach to policy.

The Hon. Cameron Friesen, PC candidate in Morden-Winkler and Minister of Health: "Alcohol remains the most significant source of addictions in Manitoba." The new Rapid Access centres his government created are changing health care delivery with patients receiving support from multiple professionals more quickly.

While there has been criticism of the Tories for skipping out on some town halls and leaders' debates, Friesen bravely stepped into the role of defending his record as Health Minister and the Pallister performance on the topic at hand. He was politely received by a crowd that seemed to be more NDP-oriented, as might be expected. A public Question Period followed the candidates segment with moderated questions, and more focus was put on Friesen and the PC record. One exchange in particular stuck out.

How many more psychiatric beds had been opened at Health Sciences Centre. "Six", he answered. "That's the problem right there", the woman asking responded, to big applause.

”You can't diagnose someone in 30 minutes at an ER ... if I had cancer and (CancerCare told me) there was a wait list, come back in 6 months, woukld that be acceptable? No."

I also asked a question of Friesen, referencing examples like Ian Rabb of Two Ten Recovery making an offer about 3 months ago to open an 8 bed facility if funding was provided for support staff, as well as the Morberg House vision for 800 Adele that has been circulated by director Marion Willis. I asked if the PC's would consider such ideas from established treatment providers that wouldn't require construction of a new building or retrofitting HSC for $7M to add 12 detox beds as his party has committed to.

Friesen clearly wasn't familiar with either proposal, and mentioned there is current litigation involving the government breaking the lease with the owners of 800 Adele, in trying to set aside commenting.

But he did make a remark that the problem with the contract was that the NDP did not put it to tender, and that the facility was not suited for public health care use as it does not have an elevator or air conditioning. I found that response odd, because despite those alleged shortcomings the building has been licenced by the Province as a care home for children placed by the Southern Authority for about a decade on Adele. The licence was first issued by the NDP and thereafter by his own government.

Dr. Gerrard took the opportunity to initiate the first real shot of the event at the Pallister government, criticizing their intention to pass legislation to legally break the contract, and said 'the style of the PC government was getting in the way of working with people'.

A final note from Cheryl Hirsh Katz:

Meth is highly addictive and available. Recovery can be a long process.

We want people to be aware that supports are available. Jewish individuals struggling with a meth addiction or their families are encouraged to contact JCFS at (204)477-7430 for further information and supports. provides Jewish Journalism that is sharp, informative and topical.

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