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Ontario Minister of Health and London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews poses for photographs in London, Ontario, Thursday October 15, 2009. (Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail/Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Minister of Health and London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews poses for photographs in London, Ontario, Thursday October 15, 2009. (Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail/Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)

Report urges more community supports for people with mental-health issues Add to ...

Police, the courts and hospital emergency rooms spend too much time dealing with people with mental-health issues who aren't getting needed supports in the community, an expert panel set up by the Ontario government concludes.

The advisory group on mental health and addictions is calling for more investment in community-based services, noting Ontario spends less than most other G8 nations in that area, but spends much more per capita on hospital services.

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"This heavy investment in hospital-based services has not resulted in a measurable improvement in mental health. Instead, we see the need for services growing," the group's report concludes.

"If we can get the health investment right, we can reduce many of the social costs associated with mental illnesses and addictions."

Ontario spends nearly $3-billion a year on mental health and addiction services, plus another $2.5-billion in law-enforcement services to deal with people who have mental-health issues.

The private sector spends at least $2.1-billion a year on disability claims and drugs for people with mental health and addiction problems. When productivity costs are factored in, mental illnesses cost Ontario at least $39-billion a year, the report said.

The Liberal government is committed to making the mental-health system work better for the people it is supposed to serve, and will add another $30-million to the budget, Health Minister Deb Matthews said.

"What we need to do is get people the supports they need to keep them out of more expensive systems," Ms. Matthews said.

"If we turn our attention to mental health, take a multi-ministry approach to it, we actually can do a lot without spending more money. We can get a lot better value for the money already spent."

Ontario's current system of programs and supports for people with mental-health problems is "fractured" and is not patient-centred, Ms. Matthews said.

"We're organized from the perspective of the service provider, so the person who's really struggling with mental health then has to access the housing, find out where the various programs are for the care they need, instead of having somebody who's responsible for getting that person what they need, and have that person-centred approach."

The Ontario Medical Association said it shared many of the concerns outlined in the advisory group's report, including the lack of service integration and poor access to treatment and counselling services.

"We have to identify and implement the best methods to reduce wait times for patients requiring specialized psychiatric care to ensure they can receive the care they so urgently need," Desi Brownstone of the OMA said

The New Democrats said there is agreement among service providers, medical experts and even the government on a new approach to mental-ealth services, so there's no reason for the report's recommendations not to be implemented.

The province provides a patchwork of well-intended mental health programs that sometimes are effective but sometimes are not, and certainly are not co-ordinated, said NDP health critic France Gélinas.

"We all agree that this has to change and how it has to change, and we now have in black and white a 10-year plan as to how you get there," said Ms. Gélinas.

"There is no reason to stall because we're all on the same page. There are no dissenting voices right now in Ontario as to what should be done."

One of the advisory group's key goals is to stop the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, starting with education programs for first responders and emergency workers and then expanding to the general public.

One result expected from that education program will be more people asking for help, said Ms. Matthews.

"A funny thing about mental health is as we reduce stigma, we actually will increase demand for services," she said. "I think we have to be prepared to respond to that."

The OMA urged Ms. Matthews to act on the report sooner rather than later, saying patients with mental illness or addictions and their families have been waiting far too long for improvements.

"With a decade of research already completed, it's time to take action to ensure that patients have timely access to quality care," said OMA president Mark MacLeod.

Statistics show one in five people in Ontario will experience a serious mental illness or substance abuse problem in their lifetime, and that the risks are greater early and late in life.

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