Recent years have seen a 20 per cent increase in the use of hard drugs, like crystal meth, in New Brunswick. This increase isn’t a solitary problem, it is just one tier of the compounding problems of mental health issues, addiction, and affordable housing availability that are hitting the most vulnerable members of New Brunswick communities.
Mental health issues are the most common type of disability claimed in Canada. In 2018, there were 981 discharges in Fredericton related to mental health and addiction hospitalizations, according to the Hospital Mental Health Database. Across all New Brunswick hospitals, over 5500 people sought treatment for mental health issues and addictions.
The symptoms of improperly treated mental illness leave victims without secure financial income and puts them at further risk of housing insecurity and homelessness. When health care is not easily accessible, many turn to substance abuse as a form of self-medication. This provides users with a temporary escape, but often the abuse spirals out of control, eventually compounding and adding to the initial problem.
"[The most vulnerable people] are the ones that are typically using more of the crystal meth because it's very cheap," said Dr. Sara Davidson in an interview with CBC. The drug's ability to stave off hunger also makes it an appealing substance for those currently suffering from homelessness.
Davidson, of the Downtown Fredericton Health Clinic, has recently assisted in opening the River Stone Recovery Health Clinic. The clinic is one of five pilot project programs launching across Canada. Located on King Street in downtown Fredericton, the new clinic can be located across the street from the Downtown Fredericton Health Clinic, behind The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy. Services offered at the clinic include injectable agonist therapy, a treatment showing significant benefits for reducing the use of street opioids, as well as peer support programs partnering those suffering from addiction with recovered addicts.
David Coon, Fredericton South MLA, emphasizes the importance of mental health service availability for reducing addiction rate, and criticizes the Department of Health for its lack of support for the River Stone Center.
“The Department of Health or at least the Medicare branch turned down Dr. Davidson's request to have 40 per cent of her time allocated as medical director to the River Stone Addictions Recovery Centre, which didn't make any sense at all,” said Coon.
He still feels confident that Davidson could receive approval to allocate more time to the addictions centre, and expressed the need to remove barriers that are delaying the building of affordable housing by the non-profit housing sector.
People suffering from serious mental illness are disproportionately vulnerable to homelessness, often remaining without housing for longer periods, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Holistic approaches are needed at all levels, starting with stronger mental health resources for the province, an issue the Higgs government has claimed is a priority.
“In a recent survey, over half of New Brunswickers said they are at high risk of mental health concerns due to COVID,” NB Premier Blaine Higgs said to reporters in the lead up to the September snap election. He promised to focus on developing an increase in walk-in clinics for mental health care and an expansion of education and psychiatric resources.
Community organizations, like The Ville Cooperative in Marysville, are taking the initiative on ground-breaking programs to fight these social issues. iGenNB, a pilot program created in partnership with the government-funded Healthy Seniors Pilot Project, brings together older adults and younger adults in a mutually beneficial intergenerational living arrangement.
The older adult must be 55 years of age or older to apply and would provide room and board to a younger adult between the ages of 20-35. In exchange for the room, the younger adult would provide companionship and be responsible for household duties including cleaning, repairs and meal preparations. The program seeks to hit two key areas of vulnerability, combating mental health issues as well as access to affordable housing.
With the looming possibility of further lockdown measures in the wake of recent New Brunswick outbreaks, these issues become more visibly pressing. David Coon is promising to continue providing initiatives to encourage building developers to include low-income housing in all future building developments.
The City of Fredericton currently has three homeless shelters that struggle to provide enough beds in the colder months but work to provide temporary shelter to 40 people per day. In the winter months many still go without a safe place to sleep.
With the continued economic implications of COVID-19, the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and the City Council’s Affordable Housing Committee could be faced with further problems in addressing these issues plaguing our communities.