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Renfrew County needs mental health task force

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Sean Chase/Daily Observer 
Bonnechere Valley councillor Jackie Agnew calls for the creation of a mental health task force as she addresses Renfrew County council on Wednesday.

Sean Chase/Daily Observer Bonnechere Valley councillor Jackie Agnew calls for the creation of a mental health task force as she addresses Renfrew County council on Wednesday.


With the lack of mental health professionals and rising incidences of youth suicide in the area, a councillor from Bonnechere Valley says the time for talk is over.

Jackie Agnew came before Renfrew County council last week to announce she is spearheading the Renfrew County CARES Task Force sharing an emotional story about her family’s struggle with depression and suicide and the roadblocks they experienced in getting help.

It began a year ago when she received a phone call that her husband, Steve, a professional singer/songwriter, had attempted to take his own life. He had initially been taken to the Ottawa Hospital General campus before being transferred to another hospital where he waited for two weeks seeing a psychiatrist only twice. The next thing Agnew knew she was being notified that Steve was being discharged. When she arrived at the hospital, he was standing outside the lobby with his suitcase.

“He was released with no care plan, no support,” said Agnew, who noted they received no follow-up phone call from the mental health unit at the Pembroke Regional Hospital either. “I was at home with a husband who had attempted suicide and I did not know what to do.”

She turned to her friend and colleague, Jennifer Murphy, mayor of Bonnechere Valley and County Warden, who put her in touch with Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon, who had extensive experience and background in community mental health services. While she was eventually able to secure help for her husband, it clearly defined the problem for the councillor.

“If my husband had had a heart attack or cancer, he would have had the help he needed, but with mental health there is no follow up,” Agnew said.

While mental health affects one in five Canadians, the problem appears much bigger in Renfrew County where recent statistics have shown 20,478 people are seeking mental health services. According to Agnew’s research, suicide is the leading cause of death among young people ages 16 to 24. The county has double the mental illness hospitalization rate of Ontario with 750 people per 100,000 as opposed to the provincial rate of 442 per 100,000.

With the Renfrew County CARES (Community, Access, Resources, Education, Safety) Task Force, Agnew wants to see direct action taken. She believes they can directly recruit another psychiatrist who can prescribe medications, using a model similar to the doctor recruitment project a few years back. Currently, Renfrew County only has two psychiatrists. A mobile mental health unit could be established to move up and down the Highway 60 corridor reaching isolated areas where clients often can’t access services because they have no transportation to get to hospitals or agencies in Pembroke or Renfrew.

“We don’t just need more psychiatrists, we need to look at how services can be integrated more efficiently within the broader mental health system to provide better access to care,” she said. “Unless we make major changes in how services are delivered, our client’s ability to access services will not improve and the demand for service will keep outpacing the supply.”

The task force is currently developing a plan to initiate mental health recruitment. Agnew is proposing a funding model similar to doctor recruitment where municipalities contributing $1 per resident to support the effort.

“We can make a difference,” she said. “Imagine if every municipality had access to mental health services in their own community.” 

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