Reprieve for mental health guardian

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Aug 04 2011.    By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

It wasn’t victory but it was the next best thing.

Last Friday, as Queen’s Park was shutting down for the Simcoe Day weekend, Health Minister Deb Matthews unexpectedly announced that the government is suspending its plan to hand off its Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“I now realize that implementing this change requires greater conversation and consultation and as a result we will not move forward at this time with the current plan,” she said. “My priority is to make sure we get this right.”

There were sighs of relief — and a few high-fives — from mental health activists. They’d been organizing, sending out distress calls and peppering the government with worried questions since word of the scheme leaked out in early summer.

For 28 years, the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office had been their voice in the corridors of power; their defender against involuntary drug injections, physical restraints and the use of excessive force; and their most reliable source of information about their rights and benefits.

Why was it suddenly being reduced to a branch of a charity? And why was the government doing it so furtively?

The timing of Matthews’ announcement was no accident. Cabinet ministers seeking to escape publicity often wait until Friday afternoon to disclose policy retreats or course corrections. The eve of a long weekend, when MPPs have scattered and the media aren’t expecting news, is particularly good for an awkward climb-down.

Nor were her motives hard to discern. With a provincial election two months away, the government was quietly defusing controversies before the campaign began.

Nonetheless, Matthews deserves a certain amount of credit. Setting aside the timing, her announcement was a model of good statecraft. She acknowledged her ministry had made a mistake. She took personal responsibility for it. And she outlined how she planned to correct it.

Over the next four months, she explained, her officials would consult psychiatric patients, their advocates and providers of mental health services. She would consider their findings and “make a decision based on your best advice, moving forward with a finalized plan in the winter.”

But by winter Matthews may no longer be health minister. The Liberals may no longer be in power. The Canadian Mental Health Association may no longer be willing to host the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office. Other conditions may have changed.

The most probable scenario, a Conservative win in October’s election, would throw the fate of the provincial watchdog into uncertainty. Opposition Leader Tim Hudak has made it clear he intends to dissolve dozens of public agencies, boards and commissions to “eliminate bloat and waste in government.”

It is unclear what the New Democrats would do. Party Leader Andrea Horwath has said almost nothing about mental health. Her party’s 48-page election platform doesn’t mention it.

There is even doubt about the stance mental health providers would take. Would they go to the wall for a little-known provincial watchdog agency when there are so many gaps and deficiencies in the mental health system? Would they part company with the Canadian Mental Health Association, which most of them consider an ally?

As for public reaction, most Ontarians have no idea what the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office is; let alone why it matters. Without a province-wide public education campaign, which sadly remains a pipe dream, there is little chance of a groundswell of support for the agency.

So the battle is far from over. Those fighting for a strong, independent Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office know that. But they also know how rare it is for a government to pause and rethink a project hurtling toward completion.

For the moment, that is enough to celebrate.

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