More pieces needed to solve the substance abuse treatment puzzle

The Provincial Government is deserving of considerable credit for its recent promise to enrich the capacity of substance abuse treatment in the province. To stem another disastrous strain on our health care system in the next few years, there are a variety of additional pieces that must be added to the substance misuse prevention and treatment policy puzzle. 

Perhaps the most important addition should mobilize resources to address the apparent lack of adequately trained treatment specialists and prevention workers. Another priority should be the establishment of an independent data collection system to evaluate program performance. Neither seem to be in place at this time. 

It appears that, compared with substance misuse, there is no other highly complex bio-psycho-social health problem intervention system characterized by such an inadequate level of professional organization and undeveloped skill requirements of staff. Data collection to evaluate program performance and regular oversight are also begging for development.

An independent performance evaluation process should be immediately put in place to identify the degree to which evidence-based programming and human resource competency are now in place in the current system. On the basis of that research, remedial upgrades should occur.

In addition, a post-secondary training program in the specialized skills required to tackle this multi-dimensional problem should be initiated. Specialties should include therapeutic skills (individual and group), community organization, and public education and media messaging. 

A good start to such an approach would be to support a series of meetings between relevant academic departments at the polytechnical and university level (including the First Nations University of Canada) to consider certificate, diploma, first degree and Master’s level training and credentials aimed at preparing a skilled workforce relevant to the challenge.  The need is indicated by the current and seemingly ever-expanding epidemic of substance misuse and chemical dependency. 

Funding for proceeding in the educational piece should not be prohibitive because existing educational institutions can be engaged to plan and implement the necessary work. Community outreach is a standard function of universities and other post-secondary institutions. Furthermore, first candidates for the relevant training can be drawn from part-time students currently employed in human service roles in government and NGOs (i.e., psychiatric nurses, clinical psychologists, and social workers). In this way, major front-end costs otherwise incurred by emphasizing new, full-time students, could be significantly reduced.

Partnerships in this initiative would be appropriately established with Health Canada and the Canadian Association of Mental Health (CAMH), Saskatchewan branch. First Nations and Metis representative bodies—and educational institutions — should also be included.

Dr. Richard Thatcher is a retired sociologist and community health planning consultant who has written extensively about substance abuse issues.