MONCTON, N.B. — A longtime New Brunswick mental health activist says it is insulting that the province hasn't appointed a mental health advocate even though the legislature unanimously approved the position more than three years ago.
Paul Ouellet, who has spent decades working with New Brunswickers navigating the mental health system, says life for residents battling mental illness has become more difficult over the years, leaving him frustrated by what he considers government inaction.
“They need to take action and do what they’re supposed to do. In the meantime, my people continue to suffer,” Ouellet said in an interview Tuesday, adding that he considers all New Brunswickers dealing with mental illness to be his people.
In 2019, when the legislature unanimously approved a motion to appoint someone to act as a voice in government for residents struggling with mental illness, Ouellet said he cried tears of joy. He had been pushing the province to create that role for years.
The 72-year-old says he was asked by the province to create a job description for the position, which he did and submitted to government in January 2020. But the job remains vacant, and Ouellet said that even his offer to act in that role as a volunteer was turned down.
Department of Health spokesperson Adam Bowie said in an email the province is “still considering the creation of a mental health advocate position, or whether that accountability and oversight is being provided by several existing resources.”
New Brunswick’s ombudsperson hears concerns about mental health, Bowie said, adding that the province's child and youth advocate also works to enhance mental health services. As well, he said, there is Psychiatric Patient Advocate Services, which ensures that New Brunswick’s Mental Health Act is appropriately applied.
Ouellet, however, said these existing services and departments are not appropriately set up to support the mental health needs of New Brunswickers.
“The psychiatric advocate … They’re not there to defend the patient," he said. "And youth and child advocate, that’s not their mandate and they’re overwhelmed. The office of the ombudsman is overwhelmed too. They are not there for the patient, so we need this position."
Ouellet, who worked for 30 years as an accountant with the federal government, has spent the majority of his life navigating the mental health-care system with his three siblings, who have been diagnosed with various forms of schizophrenia.
“I decided I couldn’t let all my knowledge go to waste,” Ouellet said.
Since retiring 15 years ago, Ouellet has become a full-time volunteer providing support to people in Moncton with mental health needs, accompanying them to appointments and acting as an advocate for those who request his support and expertise.
“It’s insulting that this position has not yet been appointed. It says that they are not sensitive to mental illness. I’m 72 years old now … this needed to happen years ago,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2023.
— By Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press