Our People in Profile: Health promotion manager Heika Sarty-Boutilier says fewer 'risk factors' and more 'protective factors' keys to mental wellness

Heika Sarty-Boutilier is currently NSHA's interim provincial health promotion manager for mental health and addictions (Submitted).
Heika Sarty-Boutilier is currently NSHA's interim provincial health promotion manager for mental health and addictions (Submitted).

“How do we promote the idea of mental wellness to folks?”

That’s one of the recurrent questions that has emerged for veteran health care administrator Heika Sarty-Boutilier, who has been with Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) for four and a half years and is currently in the role of interim provincial health promotion manager for mental health and addictions.

Before that, Sarty-Boutilier was the manager of NSHA’s psychiatric emergency services, as well as the manager of the short-stay crisis stabilization unit located in the Abbie J Lane Memorial Building of the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

Throughout her work in these various roles, that question has required her thoughtful attention.

“How do we continue to promote people living well?” Sarty-Boutilier also asks.

These questions, she thinks, are at the crux of addressing mental health and addictions needs in our communities.

In her current role, Sarty-Boutilier helps answer these important questions by working with the health promotion team to communicate messages around risk reduction and preventing self-harm.

“We’re always looking at, ‘what are the different venues of communication, when educating the public?’ (and) how we can engage differently and meet individuals where they’re at,” she explained.

Working in health promotion is a nice change of pace for Sarty-Boutilier, as she gets to answer these questions from a population standpoint and come up with broad, overarching solutions to mental health and addictions challenges.

This is very different from her time working at an inpatient hospital.

“Psych emerg and the short stay unit (are) dynamic, fast-paced environments,” she said. “Sometimes decisions made there are literally life and death.”

Sarty-Boutilier’s job at psychiatric emergency services was to support the staff with the resources they need. She worked closely with other crisis services such as the mental health mobile crisis and urgent care teams, as well as with outside resources within the community.

Sarty-Boutilier also worked with adolescents at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax from 2005 through 2009.

“I managed five other specialty services in mental health and addictions and worked with marginalized vulnerable youth in community-based organizations.”

All this first-hand experience has made her quite knowledgeable when it comes to suicide as it relates to the health care system.

When it comes to talking about suicide, Sarty-Boutilier emphasizes that we need to change our language.

In fact, she believes the conversation should be less about suicide prevention and more about permanent risk reduction.

“I really think we need to focus on keeping people from getting to crisis in the first place,” she explained. “We can do this by focusing on minimizing the risk factors while bolstering up those protective factors.”

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center indicates that risk factors for suicide include social isolation, prior suicide attempts, misuse and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs, among others. Protective factors include life skills, effective behavioural health care, social support and resilience.

In Nova Scotia, the approach health professionals take when assessing suicide and harm focuses on identifying the risk factors and having strategies in place that will minimize them.

Some of the biggest contributors to suicide are risk factors.

 “We’re meeting people on arguably the very worst day of their life," Sarty-Boutilier said of working with people in crisis. “It's a very vulnerable, scary position to be in when you have a loved one who is experiencing suicidal thoughts or perhaps even a suicide attempt.”

Many people believe that the best mental health treatment occurs within a hospital setting, but Sarty-Boutilier wants people to know that’s a myth.

“After a lot of assessment by folks who are trained and skilled in this area, doctors may determine that the most appropriate treatment option is not within the hospital setting.”

Those decisions are not taken lightly. When patients come to emergency departments in crisis, the level of care that a patient needs is tailored to that individual’s needs. Everyone who enters the emergency department leaves with a plan of care, even if it results in no stay in the hospital, Sarty-Boutilier emphasized.

The public and physicians need to invest in ongoing research to fully understand how to reduce risks of suicide and self-harm, she added.

“Mental health and mental illness have touched every Nova Scotian in some way, shape or form,”  Sarty-Boutilier said. “It’s important to remember that when setting funding priorities.”

Acknowledgement and recognition of the good people who work in mental health and addiction health care is also critical, she said.

“I believe we are excellent at what we do and that we have phenomenal staff and amazing programs,”  Sarty-Boutilier said. “People don't get into this work for a paycheck. You can work any place for a paycheck and not deal with the intensity that these people are dealing with daily.”

“People are doing the work because they're committed to and they believe in it,” she said. “So, let's keep doing what we're good at.”

Need help now?

The provincial Mental Health Crisis Line is available 24/7 toll-free at 1-888-429-8167.

Kids Help Phone is also available 24/7 toll-free at 1-800-668-6868.

Or if you are in crisis, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department.

More information on mental health and addictions resources and services across the province is available here.