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Mental health to become priority for Northwest

THUNDER BAY -- Mental health and addictions will play a central role in the next chapter of health care and integration in Northwestern Ontario.
North West Local Health Integration Network CEO Laura Kokocinski announces mental health and addictions will take on an increased focus in the region's health care delivery. A new Integrated Health Service Plan is expected in the spring of 2016. (Jon Thompson,

THUNDER BAY -- Mental health and addictions will play a central role in the next chapter of health care and integration in Northwestern Ontario.

Preliminary study of the three-month Guide Your Health Survey, which wrapped up last month, has given the North West Local Health Integration Network a fresh look at the region's health care prioriites. 

Survey respondents identified improvements to mental health and addictions services alongside community support, assisted living, supportive housing and homecare as top concerns.

"There's increased incidence of mental health and addiction that's coming forward both in emergency departments and allo within the mental health and addiction sector itself," said LHIN CEO Laura Kokocinski. 

"We're not in a crisis situation. We certainly have a high incidence of mental health and addictions in our LHIN overall and we're constantly looking for strategies and pertnerships between the providers as to how we can be working together to address those needs. We need to get the providers together to talk about exactly what they're seeing in terms of specific instances and how those can be best managed together." 

Kokocinski pointed to the suicide rate in Northwestern Ontario's First Nations as being five times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginals and a recent study that showed the Aboriginal suicide rate in Northern Ontario has increased three-fold since 1990.

She said discussions with Health Canada are underway and research is ongoing to identify best practices in other jurisdictions that could impact care in the Northwest.

"We're not unique in terms of our challenges with regard to suicide issues in Canada," she said.

"There are certainly many ways in which you can address that and have a focus on that. We have a crisis response team in the city of Thunder Bay right now that is a very valuable resource to us and also, we have providers across the region that are coming together and engaged in conversations about what kinds of strategies could be used to move forward and address that."

Sharon Pitawanakwat is the CEO of Thunder Bay's office for the Canadian Mental Health Association. She has seen the volume of both early psychosis intervention care and mental health diversion programs double, quarter over quarter in 2015. 

"We're absolutely seeing increased volume in accessing services, for sure," she said. "There's a great need in our community for all partners to do things in a different way to meet those needs."

Although the causes for population-wide mental health challenges are uncertain, Pitawanakwat cited age demographics along with high instances of chronic disease, homelessness, alcohol and drug use as ingredients contributing to the burgeoning evidence that Northwestern Ontario needs to address the issue.

She sees CHMA's role in the LHIN discussions as directing clients to appropriate services and helping to decrease strain on emergency services and hospitals. The LHIN's identified priorities of assisted living and supportive housing could dovetail with service integration, she added.  

"As services providers and residents in this community, we want what's best for our community. Together, we can move up with really innovative ways to do that. Working together with the LHIN and with each other will bring us to that place."  

 The survey will inform the LHIN's Integrated Health Services Plan for 2016 to 2019, which will be relased next spring.