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Ottawa HIV counselling service shutting down

Clinical psychologist position will no longer exist at Ottawa Hospital

Bruce House executive director Jay Koornstra says that he is troubled by the elimination of the HIV counselling services at Ottawa Hospital. Credit: Bradley Turcotte

An Ottawa HIV counselling service — one that Jay Koornstra, executive director of Bruce House, credits with improving his health and saving the lives of others — is being shut down.

As of September 2015, the full-time clinical psychologist position at the Ottawa Hospital’s HIV clinic will no longer exist. Koornstra says the loss of access to free, highly-specialized HIV counselling is alarming.

“I was devastated because I know how important this psychological service is for many people, including myself, but I actually know that it’s saved people’s lives,” he says. “The [services] have been so intuitively focused on understanding the stigmas attached not only to HIV but also to sexual orientation as well as mental health issues. When you take all of that combined you really need to have a very focused, evidence-based application of psychological services and they have been doing this for almost 20 years.”

The decision to discontinue the psychologist position at the HIV clinic is due to recent budget cutbacks. On May 28, the Ottawa Hospital announced it was cutting $12 million in spending, which included the loss of 87 full-time jobs. Dr Jeff Turnbull, the hospital’s chief of staff, says he’s sympathetic to the people who are affected.

“These are difficult decisions to be made and were not taken lightly,” Turnbull says. “We find ourselves in a challenging position. Our budgets have been frozen for four years. There is a movement by the Ministry of Health to move financial support and resources out into the community, and in light of that, we’ve had to really take a very hard and critical look at many of the different services that we provide here at the hospital.”

At one time, HIV was life-threatening, but now is a chronic, manageable condition, Turnbull says. Psychological services are still important for people living with HIV, but those services don’t have to take place in a hospital setting, he says.

“Our goal is to work with Champlain Local Health Integration Network with the Ministry of Health as an essential partner in that process to advocate for improved resources throughout the community,” Turnbull says. “We will advocate with everyone to promote those services as best we can and the right place for those services, which we believe would be out in the community where other psychology services are provided.”

But at this stage, there isn’t a community-based replacement offering free, HIV-specific psychological counselling in Ottawa, he says.

Living with the double stigma of HIV and mental health issues isn’t easy, says Koornstra, who has spoken with people who credit the counselling at the HIV clinic with saving their lives. While Koornstra is a bright light in the community — he’s received a Diamond Jubilee medal from MPP Yasir Naqvi, a lifetime achievement award from Daily Xtra and a hero award from the Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity —  he says his accomplishments wouldn’t have been possible without the HIV clinic’s counselling services.

“I would not have been able to accomplish what I’ve accomplished without them,” he says. “There are new [HIV] treatments being developed all the time that are extending the physical lives of people infected with HIV, so treating the coexisting clinical depression is worth everything in the long run. It will help the aging process. It will help improve the person’s quality of life and the person’s desire to live.”

Turnbull agrees that it’s important for people living with HIV to have access to professional counselling.

“There is a higher incidence of mental health [issues] and addictions within this community and we believe that that community needs that support, but it’s a matter of where that support should be provided,” he says. “I know this is an important service, essential for this community. I have to work even harder now to promote and to advocate for those services to be out in the community. Perhaps that’s where they most reasonably should be, but on the other hand we have to make sure that those services are not neglected because they are essential services.”

Koornstra says he will advocate for psychological services for people living with HIV and is encouraging people to write letters of concern to their MPP and to Dr Jack Kitts, Ottawa Hospital’s CEO.

Although the psychologist position is gone from the hospital’s HIV clinic, Turnbull says his interest in the health care of everyone affected remains.

“These decisions are never easy and we still will look in any way we can to work with our partners to promote the right resolution of this,” he says.