Gabriolans get boost in mental health care

Island Health is sending a psychiatric nurse to Gabriola Island once a week to help with patients' access to care.

For the first time, Gabriolans can access a psychiatric nurse without leaving the island.

Island Health has launched a new pilot project this month to boost access to mental health care on Gabriola Island – a step one doctor hopes will lead to more services located in the outlying community.

The six-month initiative, done in partnership with Sustainable Gabriola’s working group on mental health and substance use, will see a psychiatric nurse visit Gabriola once a week to take referrals. There will also be a psychiatrist assigned to island patients and resources for mental health seminars.

Until now, mental health teams on the island have only addressed certain age groups like seniors and children, leaving adults between the ages of 19 to 65 to fall through the cracks if they aren’t sick enough to be committed or hospitalized and unwilling to leave the island, according to Tracey Thorne, a family doctor with the Gabriola Medical Clinic.

Island Health’s crisis counseling and other mental health services are located in Nanaimo, which presents barriers like the ferry schedule and patients’ desire to leave the community, health advocates say. Without on-island services, doctors have become counsellors and mental health workers and while Thorne says it’s appropriate they fill that role, she also says they are not as up to date on available counselling services and sometimes wish they had the support of a broader team.

Doctors can now meet with the psychiatric nurse weekly to talk about patient concerns.

Thorne hopes the next step is to have follow-up counseling services provided on Gabriola.

“The fact is as a population of 4,500 people we need to have some services available here in our own community,” she said.

The push to fill Gabriola’s mental health care gaps began last year, after the community experienced several suicides. A report on service needs by Sustainable Gabriola and presented to Island Health, shows 628 patients are seen by island doctors for mental health and substance use issues, including depression and drug dependence.

Dyan Dunsmoor-Farley, chairwoman of the working group on mental health, said services on Gabriola have been sporadic with no thought put into a referral process to connect doctors with clinicians coming onto the island and no one to work with people with mild to moderate mental illness. She says the new pilot program is going to do a lot.

“The first week [the nurse] was here, I think she saw five people. Imagine, five people who had not been seen and assessed are all of a sudden getting an assessment, getting referred to the appropriate resources. I mean that’s huge,” Dunsmoor-Farley said.

Island Health was not available for comment.

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