The Yukon government was quick to respond to the long-awaited Report on Mental Health Services in the Yukon from the federal Auditor-General, released Monday.
A statement from the auditor said there have been some improvements made to the services locally, but also noted there are improvements still to be made.
“The audit concluded that the Department of Health and Social Services successfully increased access to mental health services for rural Yukoners,” the report reads.
“The department created Mental Wellness and Substance Use hubs, or clinics, in four key rural communities. Each hub serves a number of surrounding rural communities, making it easier for Yukoners living in these communities to access services.
“During the COVID‑19 pandemic, the department maintained access to services by providing phone and online options, as well as limited in-person services,” the report says.
The report from the AG came with some provisos, though.
“Though creating hubs has improved access to mental health and substance use services, the audit determined that the department struggled to recruit and retain staff,” it says.
“This is a common challenge in many northern communities, and more so in rural and remote areas. The department will need a systematic approach and innovative solutions to address this challenge,” it adds.
“The department also needs to set targets which it can use to measure and report on its service delivery efforts. Without such targets, at this point, the department is unable to determine whether the services being provided through its hubs are meeting the needs of Yukoners, or to track whether services are improving.”
“Having accessible services in rural communities as part of a permanent local structure makes it easier for people to get the help they need when they need it,” said Glenn Wheeler, who prepared the audit.
“Ongoing engagement with stakeholders will be critical for the department to identify adjustments and improvements to provide mental health services that are most needed, and culturally safe.”
The government chose to see the bright side of the report.
“The release today of the Report on Mental Health Services in Rural Yukon by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada (OAG) is welcome news for our government, and for the territory,” Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said Monday.
“The report is favourable overall and offers positive support for the progress we have made since 2016 in improving mental health and substance use services in rural Yukon communities.
“It acknowledges that we have successfully increased access to mental health and substance use services through the hub model while recognizing that the hubs had only been operational for 2 1/2 years at the time of the audit,” the minister added.
McPhee said the report includes four recommendations:
• address community consultation and engagement around services;
• create a robust recruitment and retention strategy for rural staffing;
• develop and implement a plan for working with First Nations to increase cultural safety in service delivery; and
• establish, measure and report on the performance of mental health services in rural Yukon.
McPhee said she acknowledges more work is needed to improve mental health services throughout the territory.
“The recommendations from the OAG will help us achieve our goal to improve mental health and substance use services in all Yukon communities,” she said.
“Work has already begun to address the four recommendations and we have already identified areas for improvement. Our four mental wellness and substance use hubs have established a strong foundation for expanded services for rural Yukoners, and we look forward to building on that foundation to improve mental health across the territory.”
Tiffany Tasane, the executive director of the Whitehorse branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said she is generally in agreement with the review.
“I think they reflect the situation. The government has made great strides and improvements in the last few years, but there’s more room to grow.”
Tasane said the review also highlighted the lack of data to evaluate mental health resources properly, as well as the lack of administrative support for programs.
NDP Leader Kate White said the report “highlights what many in communities already know: staffing and retention have been problematic from the start. The mental health hubs have never been fully staffed, which is a problem we’ve highlighted many times.
“We have major concerns about the trauma and burn-out that is caused by the Yukon government moving positions away from communities and into Whitehorse,” White said.
“It shows that although some consultations happened prior to the hubs being opened, not enough community engagement was used in the creation of these important spaces and that engagement must be meaningful and ongoing.”