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Alberta Liberal leader David Swann talks mental health at University of Calgary

Department of Psychology hosts open meeting on government commissioned report

Alberta Liberal leader David Swann addresses a room full of faculty and students on the state of mental health care in Alberta on March 18. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Heath McCoy 
March 23, 2016

Mental health care and addiction services in Alberta are in need of a major systematic overhaul according to a report commissioned by Alberta’s new NDP government, but for the recommended changes to be implemented, citizens, especially those “in the know” like researchers and health care workers, must put the pressure on politicians.

That was a key message delivered by Dr. David Swann, who served as a co-chair of the Alberta Mental Health Review Committee behind the report, when he appeared at the University of Calgary last Friday to address faculty members and students in an open meeting organized by the Clinical Psychology Program of the Department of Psychology.

“We have a system that is fragmented and insufficiently funded,” said Swann, interim leader of the

Alberta Liberal Party and MLA for Calgary-Mountainview, noting that mental health programs only receive six per cent of provincial health funding. “As a result we’re seeing untold preventable suffering and a lack of cost effectiveness in the care provided.”

Fielding questions from the audience, Swann spoke of some of the biggest problems identified within the mental health care system.

For one, there are major communication barriers between Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services. This communication breakdown extends into other service silos that deal with mental health issues, such as social services, the school system and the justice system.

“I hear stories every week about the duplication of services, and slow decision making from the top down that is resulting in massive frustration and waste at the level of patient care,” Swann says. “These barriers have to be addressed.”

Swann also called for a more consistent monitoring system for patients, early childhood screening, and he took particular aim at primary health care and the “fee for service model.”

“In the case of physicians, the more patients they see, the more they get paid,” he said.  “This doesn’t make for quality treatment. We’re not seeing better outcomes or efficiencies. Many doctors don’t like it either. They’d like to spend more time with their patients to feel more confident in the way they’re treating them. We need to shift away from this model.”

The NDP government has pledged to act on six of the 32 recommendations from the mental health review, but has said that the province can’t afford the remaining proposals.  “The good news is we have a government today that wants to do the right thing,” Swann said. “The bad news is they don’t have a lot of money, and there are competing priorities.”

Swann called on citizens to “keep the pressure on.”

“If the people making the decisions around funding and policy don’t feel consistent pressure to implement these changes, then this report will just be filed among all the reports from the past,” Swann cautioned. “These problems will only change to the extent by which we all share in the advocacy around them. We especially need a relationship between those in the know and those that the make the decisions, and there’s been very little communication between health workers and politicians.”

Professor David Hodgins, head of the Department of Psychology agreed and added that the University of Calgary must also take part in this advocacy. “The university and its researchers have a role in both encouraging action and providing research that will facilitate change,” Hodgins stated.