Four-County Crisis short-term case manager, Andrew Hodson, is busier than ever working during a pandemic.

As part of the local mental health crisis response program, his job takes him all over the region. Demand for mental health services is up across the province and Four-County Crisis is no exception, with Hodson’s caseload up more than 25 per cent.

Hodson said he helps people from all walks of life dealing with a wide range of issues, including drug addiction. He said Haliburton is not immune to the problem, with many types of hard drugs being used and becoming more readily available over the years as opposed to being imported from the city.

“It’s a harrowing landscape,” Hodson said. “I see it having tentacles into housing, into health care, into mental health, relationships … Because there are so many paths to lead into these situations, I think we need that many paths out. I think options are great – I don’t think there’s a one-stop solution.”

Hodson is one of many in the sector working to address addictions in Haliburton and beyond. But local providers say finding funding to improve their work can be challenging.

Jack Veitch is the manager of community engagement and education at the district branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and works with Hodson. He said CMHA offers a range of successful programs to help those suffering from addiction but they are short-staffed.

“We need five Andrew (Hodsons). We need to have a whole, big-structured approach. We need more and more support within the community, so it’s not reliant on one, fantastic employee,” Veitch said.

Veitch highlighted the provincial government’s promise of $3.8 billion over 10 years toward mental health. But he said finances are an issue locally – with no baseline funding or cost of living adjustment for nine years. He said that $3.8 billion should go beyond just hospital settings and larger centres, adding those in positions of power might not understand how much distance can make accessing care difficult.

“Sometimes think, ‘oh well, Haliburton County, we got a support out there. They’re in Wilberforce, they can get to Minden’,” he said. “Not realizing that’s a heck of a hike if you don’t have a car.

“Let’s make sure these dollars are rolled out in community mental health care in our rural communities, where the need is clearly there,” Veitch added.

Unifying care

Minden’s Dr. Nell Thomas said the pandemic has brought increased struggle for her patients dealing with addictions. She said the impact on drug supply lines has made people turn to more dangerous substances.

She further said with rural doctors dealing with COVID, there is not as much time to address addiction.

“I know that a couple of my patients that I was holding their hand and maybe inching toward them getting to rehab, I have not seen in (months),” Thomas said. “We all know those folks with addictions are suffering and being lost.”

But Thomas does have a vision for a solution. She said current care approaches are often too siloed and collaboration can be difficult in a rural setting.

She said if the funding existed, she would like to build a new local medical centre that could bring more providers under one roof, improving ease of access. She further said a stronger, team-based method is necessary.

“I attend conferences and I see just how many different organizations and agencies exist. I’m floored at all the different acronyms,” she said. “Spits and spurts and not a truly cohesive approach. My vision would be to have a team, representing social work, counselling, crisis, medicine, nursing, public health. I have patients that are going into (emergency rooms) far too often.”

But she said the funding is not there for such a thing, particularly given Haliburton’s relatively low population. As is, she said it is difficult connecting people with different treatment options.

“Very frustrating for the doctors, in general, trying to get resources for patients because of the waitlists,” she said. “Because of the hoops you have to jump to get people connected is time-consuming and frustrating.”

Marg Cox is the executive director of Point in Time and sits on the CKL and Haliburton County Poverty Reduction Roundtable. She said there are some links to the stresses of poverty and substance abuse, though added drug abuse impacts people of all economic circumstances.

“We know that people that are experiencing poverty are experiencing huge stressors in terms of daily living and trying to pay their rent, put food on the table,” Cox said. “Throw COVID on top of it and we know folks are under a great deal of pressure. And we know that when people are under pressure, they’re more likely to turn to substances.”

She said the issues creating poverty – which the roundtable focuses on – would have downstream impacts on substance abuse as well.

“There would be a very good reduction in terms of substance use if people had adequate incomes, adequate housing, good food to eat and less stress related to poverty,” Cox said.

Help in the legal system

Thomas said she believes in a “carrot, not the stick” method when dealing with substance abuse in the justice system.

“You can lay charges around in circles. You can have a very short-term response to that, but you’re not going to have a long-term solution by using legal means. It’s really about providing alternatives and space and realistic options for people.”

Veitch and Hodson both echoed the sentiment. However, they highlighted the successful collaborations they have with police and the justice system for court diversion, intervening to help those struggling with mental health or addiction issues.

“We’re there ready in the court system,” Hodson said. “As opposed to a fine or some sort of punishment, we can encourage that person to engage with addictions support, engage with mental health support … I’ve stood in court beside people – literally – after six months of help. And speaking to the judge on behalf of their own recovery, these are powerful, powerful moments where people have recounted their gratitude for having an opportunity to turn things around.”

Veitch said punitive measures have not been an historically successful way to stop repeat offences.

“How can we still create this level of accountability and reduce recidivism?” Veitch said. “It’s creating all these fantastic court partnership programs, where there’s still a level of accountability for the offender. But there’s also a level of treatment and care and support.”

Beyond the need for increased resources, Hodson said it is vital that the community care for those suffering from addiction.

“We need to develop something for Haliburton, from Haliburton,” he said. “I ask people, ‘what on earth got you through that (addiction)?’ What I hear, it’s not what you’d expect. You hear things like, ‘my Mom never stopped loving me. My probation officer, ladies at the food bank, always treated me with dignity. Never made me feel like a second-class citizen.’

“That is everything. We can build all the buildings and develop all the medications we want to develop. If we don’t have that community that makes people feel loved – and there’s a place on the table waiting for them – I don’t know where we go.”

But he said there are plenty of people in Haliburton – from police to churches to human services to parents – ready to lend a helping hand.

“Are we perfect? Of course not, but there is an invisible army of people in this County offering their support,” he said. “I’ve seen so many remarkable cases of recovery in this community and it’s heart warming. Those stories just don’t make the headlines, but they are out there.”

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