BC’s minister of mental health and addictions says a regional approach is required to end the toxic drug crisis in the West Kootenay.
Jennifer Whiteside stopped in Nelson last week during her tour through the province.
She arrived in town on Thursday and held a series of meetings with politicians and health workers who provide harm reduction strategies and heard from local businesses at the Chamber of Commerce to address many concerns surrounding mental health and addictions in the community.
“What I learned while I was here is that certainly this community is really experiencing many challenges related to the toxic drug crisis, as many other communities across the province are as well,” Whiteside said.
“I know that Nelson, in addition to experiencing increased overdoses, has also lost community members and that is really, really tragic. We’re working really hard through the Interior Health Authority with community partners to scale up the kinds of services and care and support that people need through this terrible crisis.”
She said that she and the rest of the provincial government are actively working with Interior Health to solve the drug crisis.
“The Interior Health Authority is working on the ground to provide access to opioid addiction, to opioid addiction therapy, to counseling services. We have work being done in the community with respect to providing pharmaceutical alternatives to the illicit toxic drug supply to try and separate people from that illicit supply, which can be very dangerous in terms of the contamination of fentanyl and other analogues.”
Another concern Whiteside said she was made aware of during her visit is the need to add more mental health and addiction services throughout the region, to help relive some of the pressure of the one’s available in Nelson.
“I think it’s important in this area that we look at services across the region. So that’s some of the work that we’re doing with IHA to really assess what the gaps in services are, so that we can look to how we assure that there are supports in the context of our rural and remote communities, access to the kinds of services people need, whether that’s detox or safer supply, treatment spaces, treatment opportunities, support, etc.
“We need to ensure that we have the services that communities need close to community, and that we’re thinking regionally in terms of ensuring that we have enough shelter spaces, enough supportive housing, enough access to health care, really, across all of the communities in the West Kootenay so those are, again, issues that will we’re working with local providers on and that we’re working with the health authority on, sort of mapping out to be able to identify where the gaps are so that we can work towards filling those gaps. That’s really important.”
Whiteside hopes that a regional approach will also help tackle public safety concerns surrounding the facilities in Nelson that offer mental health and addiction support.
“I certainly heard from community members with respect to their concerns around some of the street disorder that is associated with drug use. Not so much with all drug use, but there are certainly issues that we need to be addressing in terms of ensuring that we have services providing support to individuals who may be unhoused, who may be experiencing mental health crises. That is work that, again, we’ll be working with health authorities and with local providers on addressing.”
She says she understands the urgency to provide a solution to the crisis throughout the province, but ensuring the approach is done correctly takes time.
“We’re working every day across our health system, across our public safety system, across all our other social services systems, to be able to work with communities, identify gaps, and to scale up services. Some of that work just does take some time to get services into place,” she says.
“It’s important to have an opportunity to hear directly from community members around these concerns so that we can properly identify what the gaps are.”
In February, the province announced a nearly $1 billion dollar investment in mental health and addiction services as part of BC’s three-year health care spending budget.
Whitehead says the investment is being used to improve counseling services, Indigenous-led healthcare solutions, additional treatment and detox spaces, safe supply and harm reduction throughout the province.
“All that work is being undertaken right now, and I really understand how important it is for communities to see progress on this. It is work that’s underway every day. I’m just really grateful to community members for taking the time to meet with me and really express the areas where they see we have gaps and where we can be doing better.”