B.C. Budget 2021: New money, promises for mental health and the overdose crisis

Provincial budget promises new money to mental health, which experts say has increased during the pandemic.

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The provincial budget promises $500 million in new spending over three years to help people struggling with mental health problems during the pandemic and those battling addictions during the overdose crisis, calling it the largest spending of its kind in B.C. history.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health, including the challenges faced by youth, as well as the damaging impacts of the ongoing overdose crisis,” the budget says.

The money is fairly evenly divided over the next three years, although the largest chunk, $189 million, comes in the final year, 2023-24, despite the fact that both crises urgently need more spending now.

On addictions, the budget pledges $285 million for treatment and recovery, and $45 million for overdose prevention. This includes 195 additional treatment and recovery beds for substance users, who would then be supported by new community-based services. The money will also make permanent some of the emergency measures set up during the pandemic, such as new drug consumption sites, community outreach teams, and the Lifeguard App.


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Iglika Ivanova, with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the NDP deserves credit for putting $500 million into mental health and addictions which will help many vulnerable British Columbians. But she argued it is only an “historic” investment because those problems were so underfunded by previous governments.

“To me, it does seem like a fairly modest amount, especially considering the magnitude of the crisis,” she said. “In the last couple of years, we’ve had more people die from the opioid crisis than from COVID-19.”

Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in 2017.
Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in 2017.

Finance Minister Selina Robinson did not directly answer a question about why the budget didn’t have any money specifically set aside for ensuring access to safe drugs, but said: “that’s really a focus of our government, to make sure that there’s a safe supply and that’s work that we’re doing with the federal government.”

However, Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser with the B.C. Center on Substance Use, said safe supply should have been funded. “With the amount of people who are losing their lives to illicit substances, that should be actually bumped up to being a priority.”

Felicella salutes the government for making more money available for treatment and recovery, but said the system also needs to address the trauma behind most addictions, and wished the budget had allowed for more counselling to be covered by MSP.

Jennifer Charlesworth, representative for children and youth.
Jennifer Charlesworth, representative for children and youth. Photo by Handout

For mental health, the budget includes $97 million for supports for children and youth, including more resources in 15 school districts and expanding Foundry Centres for young people. It also promises $53 million to expand the early psychosis intervention program, $14 million for the First Nations Health Authority, and $8 million to expand eating disorder care and suicide prevention.


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These investments were a good first step, but not nearly enough to adequately support children with special needs, or reduce waitlists, or to make mental health services equitable in every community, said Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth.

“I see thousands of young people that are struggling. They were struggling before COVID, and it’s got a lot worse. And I’m not seeing anything that’s fundamentally enhancing the depth and breadth of the challenges of mental health. So I’m very concerned about that,” she said.

Ivanova said both mental health and addictions are often linked to poverty, and there was not nearly enough in the budget for supported housing or other issues to help people who are financially struggling. “On that front, I think there isn’t much new.”

Experts say there has been a sizable increase in people suffering from mental health issues during the pandemic, and that marginalized and vulnerable populations are affected the most severely.

B.C. declared a public health emergency over poisoned street drugs five years ago and more than 1,700 British Columbians fatally overdosed in 2020, making it the worst year on record — and 2021 is showing no signs of improvement.

On Monday, the federal budget promised $100 million over three years for mental health interventions for those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including health-care workers, front-line workers, youth, seniors, Indigenous people, and racialized Canadians.

It also pledged $116 million over two years to address the opioid epidemic and other substance-abuse concerns.



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