Saturday, October 10, 2009

Judge says mentally ill shouldn't fill jails

An article published in the October 8th edition of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal:
By Sandra Davis

SAINT JOHN - Professional development days to train teachers how to deal with students with mental health problems and mental health response teams in schools would be big steps toward transforming the health care system, says a prominent judge.

"Who spends more time with kids than teachers?" said Judge Michael McKee [pictured] as he addressed about 20 members of the mental-health profession and the public who attended a meeting of the Saint John Community Advisory Committee on Wednesday morning.

McKee recently wrote a report urging government to break down the bureaucratic barriers that too often send mentally ill citizens to jail.

"It's easy to be decent and kind. We'd be surprised to know how many people need that in life and how easy it is."

Who to contact and how to respond is most important, he said.

"The first contact somebody with mental illness makes should be concerned about recovery," he said. "We need to focus on recovery if we're going to transform the system." In government, where the bottom line is a major concern, "the longest planning is from one election to the next," McKee said.

"The money spent on jails would be better spent on the front end.

"It's easy to come back and say 'we don't have the resources'."

Saint John's mental-health court has cost nothing - thanks to Judge Alfred Brien - McKee said, adding that he believes there are other New Brunswick judges who are willing to go that extra mile."There are people willing to take on extra files and work extra hours," he said. Eighty per cent of people who are dealt with in mental-health court never go back to court, he said.

"We've got to find a better way than bringing in the paddy wagon and handcuffs. They're not criminals, they're sick. People need to be sensitized. At the end of the day, it's about having a little bit of heart."A mental-health crisis response team comprised of a psychiatrist, psychologist, counsellors and other experts who would respond to schools would go a long way to nipping problems in the bud, he said.

Collaboration and co-ordination of government departments and professionals is also necessary, said the former Liberal cabinet minister and MLA.

"Government departments wouldn't share a nickel with another department," he said.

Uncomplicated access to housing and income support are also necessary if the system is to improve, he said.

Government has responded to a number of his recommendations within the set time lines, McKee said, but it remains a "work in progress."

"I didn't see all I would have liked. I have become a little unrealistic, but I'm not going to apologize for that," McKee said.

"This is everybody's business."

Photograph courtesy of the Saint John Telegraph Journal.

Also see:

Together into the Future: A Transformed Mental Health System for New Brunswick (PDF)

Wait-and-see reaction to gov't mental health response

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