09/12/2011 08:37 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST

Alberta focuses on prevention in new 5-year mental health-care plan

EDMONTON - Albertans who have mental health or substance-abuse problems will have their illness identified earlier and get treatment closer to home under a new five-year plan announced Monday.

This plan "represents a shift in how we're going to think about addiction and mental health, and how we're going to act to help," provincial Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky told a news conference at a north-end youth addictions centre.

"This plan lays out roles, actions, expected results, and performance measures for all the different ministries for all the different sectors and the community-based organizations."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said the announcement shows the provincial government is "out of touch and out of ideas."

He said the plan offers no funding and no specific action, and noted the Tories have spent the last few years "plotting" to shut down Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.

"People have died unnecessarily and many others live difficult lives because of this government's neglect of excellent mental health services."

Zwozdesky said the plan streamlines numerous programs and services currently spread among 16 government ministries along with front-line health department and community programs.

"It's all about ensuring a seamless delivery," said Zwozdesky. "It's all about ensuring access, so that people can receive the services when and where it is needed."

The blueprint document, titled "Creating Connections," will focus on five areas.

One goal is to help children early before they become addicted or before their mental health issues become acute.

Zwozdesky said programs already exist in schools to identify troubled kids early, but he said they will now receive added resources to "more aggressively tune in to how we can provide even more help."

There will be more addictions and mental health specialists added to front-line primary care teams of doctors and nurses.

More decentralized, non-hospital programs and services will be provided to allow people to get help in their community, whether it's in an urban or a rural area.

The government will work with communities to ensure adequate housing is available for those who need specialized help.

Health officials will give special treatment to more complex cases, such as people with fetal alcohol syndrome, those dealing with both mental health and addictions issues, seniors, and those in trouble with the law.

The plan will also include goals and benchmarks to gauge progress.

Zwozdesky admitted the plan has been delayed for months. Initiatives such as new detox treatment beds in Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat were announced ahead of the plan.

He said that couldn't be helped.

"Unfortunately we got caught up with a few theatrics and antics last fall which took time away from us," he said. He was referring to political fireworks around Raj Sherman, the junior health minister who was ejected from caucus for publicly criticizing his own government for lack of action on health waiting lists. Sherman is now leader of the Opposition Alberta Liberals.

The plan will be flexible given changing dynamics in areas like seniors care. Zwozdesky said dementia cases are expected to double by 2035.

"That will require a lot more supports, a lot more services 25 years out," he said.

He said about a million dollars will be spent in the coming year to identify where the gaps are in service.

Guy Smith, the head of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, criticized the announcement for failing to address what will be done with acute-care treatment beds.

"Families and physicians see (the beds) as an integral part of the mental health support system," said Smith in a news release.

Zwozdesky said the blueprint is critical given that studies show mental illness affects one Canadian in five and directly impacts the lives of their families and loved ones.

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