NSHA ends mental health component of sexual assault service

by Michael Lee

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Second Story Women&#8217;s Centre in Lunenburg is one of many organizations coordinating with the umbrella group Sexual Assault Services Lunenburg Queens (SASLQ). Coordinators from SASLQ had worked with South Shore Health to have mental health staff accompany nurses specialized in working with victims of sexual assault, but the Nova Scotia Health Authority has discontinued the practice.</p>

The Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) has discontinued a system on the South Shore where mental health staff would accompany specialized nurses in cases of sexual assault.

Dianne Crowell, co-coordinator of Sexual Assault Services Lunenburg Queens (SASLQ), said the system, which she called "survivor centred," offered an immediate response to a traumatic situation that can help in preventing post-traumatic stress disorder, while helping to keep a victim of sexual assault calm.

She said their association was informed of the changes last December and after making an argument to continue the service on an on-call basis, Crowell said the use of mental health staff stopped in April. "We were just told and that's extremely unfortunate."

SASLQ is an umbrella organization of several agencies including the RCMP; Schools Plus; Second Story Women's Centre, a multi-service women's centre in Lunenburg; Bridgewater's Harbour House, a transition home for women and their children leaving partner violence; and Victim Services.

In 2015, SASLQ worked together with South Shore Health, the health authority in place at the time, to have mental health staff be present alongside a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) at any of the three hospitals on the South Shore. SANEs have specialized training in working with people who are victims of sexual assault.

Crowell said it was the only service of its kind being offered in the province. "It's not just about the physical needs. It's a psychological and emotionally difficult time."

Anyone wishing to book an appointment to meet with a therapist was given top priority as well.

But after the health authorities were consolidated, an effort was made to standardize services across the province. Crowell said the intention is to expand the SANE program, but not the mental health component in place on the South Shore.

Stacey Godsoe, also a co-coordinator for SASLQ, said the Lunenburg County Community Health Board, which she is a member of, wrote a letter expressing their concern over the withdrawal of services.

She said some of the health directors and the new mental health manager explained their rationale, suggesting victims of sexual violence do not show signs of trauma for weeks down the road and likely would not need specialized mental health support until then.

Godsoe said the plan is to offload the option onto community-based support services, like Harbour House and Second Story, who in her opinion are more than capable but do not have the capacity to fill this need.

Crowell described it as "downloading" onto community-based non profits and said nurses have told her it's absolutely necessary to have mental health services, adding it changes the dynamic of the situation.

"Anyone that understands this knows immediate care is the most important," she said.

And since the majority of victims are women, Crowell said it limits the professional services available to them.

Todd Leader, former director of community health for the NSHA, has been credited with helping to implement the service. Prior to the amalgamation of the health authorities, he was the director of addiction services and of primary health care and chronic disease management for South Shore Health.

Leader said he understood that the decision was made because of a move to standardize services. "I just find that tragic that anybody would think that was a good decision in the public interest."

When asked why the NSHA chose to discontinue the system and whether it was done as a cost-saving measure, LighthouseNOW received a statement by email saying, "There have been no budget reductions which have impacted the delivery of the volunteer-based sexual assault nurse examiner program in the south shore."

"Sustainable funding made available provincially has enabled NSHA to contract with Tri County Women's Centre to establish the sexual assault nurse examiner program across the Western Zone. In addition to the collection of forensic evidence and support for victims, the SANE Program includes referral to community based services as well as Mental Health and Addictions when needed."

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