It should come as no surprise to Albertans — especially those with family members suffering from mental illness — that the province’s community treatment order (CTO) plan is being roundly criticized for its ineffectiveness. Had the Stelmach government properly established and funded the program when it was first introduced, the situation might be different.
Instead Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky got an earful over the weekend from members of the provincial division of the Canadian Mental Health Association about the program’s lack of funds, the lack of resources and the general inability to implement such orders in smaller communities. Given the Tories have taken little action, it was no shock to hear Zwozdesky ask for more information on the troubles the mentally ill face in Alberta.
It was only one year ago that Ed Stelmach and the Tory cabinet were trying to shut down beds at Edmonton’s only devoted psychiatric hospital, Alberta Hospital Edmonton, as well as take away amenities such as coffee and soap in a bid to pinch pennies. In the turmoil that followed, Stelmach announced CTOs would help the mentally ill deal with the bed closures. Yet despite a much ballyhooed bill making them available in Alberta in 2007, the legislation creating them was never proclaimed and as such, CTOs did not begin to take effect until January 2010, right when Stelmach started closing beds.
CTOs are excellent tools for helping treat and help individuals diagnosed with mental illness. Their creation stems from a fatality inquiry in which Martin Ostopovich, a Spruce Grove man with a history of mental problems and not following his treatment plans, killed RCMP Cpl. James Galloway during a standoff seven years ago. The orders are meant for those who can’t quite be hospitalized but can’t quite function on their own. Mentally ill people under a CTO who do not take their medication or attend counselling sessions can be taken into custody by a peace officer and taken to a hospital.
Yet because the government never bothered proclaiming CTOs until last fall, there is now very little in the way of money and resources available to help implement them. Alberta Health Services has all of $17 million to co-ordinate services for any Albertan placed under a CTO. These orders are not simple — they require the services of pharmacists, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses … the list goes on. And Zwozdesky says 48 orders have been issued or are in the works as of Jan. 1. The Canadian Mental Health Association openly admits individuals who would benefit from a CTO in some cases aren’t placed under one because the resources in their community simply aren’t available.
“If there’s something we can do that we’re not doing, I’d like to have a look at that,” Zwozdeksky told The Edmonton Journal. The list of what the provincial government isn’t doing to help the mentally ill, however, is as long as what the government never did do. It had three years to develop a plan to properly implement CTOs. Instead it scored a political victory, shelved the legislation and resurrected it only when their draconian bed closures left them with no other option.
Since Ralph Klein told his story of a shoeless man in Calgary who claimed he loved being homeless — and was likely mentally ill — the Tories have demonstrated that the individuals who need the most help in Alberta are the least likely to get it. An incident as resonating as Galloway’s death can galvanize public opinion, but the daily battles in families over the mental health of a loved one go often unnoticed. The Tories might catch up with CTOs eventually, but it will take more time than many families should have to wait.