Kim Moran receives phone calls and e-mails daily from parents desperately waiting for mental-health care for their children.
The chief executive of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, an advocacy association that represents publicly funded child and youth mental health centres in the province, says the wait times in Ontario are “outrageous.” More than 12,000 children and young people in Ontario are on waiting lists to receive the care they need, whether it’s a few counselling and therapy sessions, an appointment with a psychiatrist or an intensive treatment program – and in some cases, the wait is as long as two years, she says.
When it comes to demanding quicker access to care and more resources, “we have been sounding the alarm for so long that it’s hard to even say crisis any more, because I don’t know a bigger word past crisis,” she says. And it's not just youth who are in crisis; mental-health advocates say there is urgent demand for better access to appropriate mental-health care for all ages.
This, Ms. Moran says, is why she is happy to see that mental health and addiction care is a priority for the three main political parties in the run-up to the June 7 provincial election. The Ontario Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives have each promised close to $2-billion in new funding for mental-health and addiction care, and supportive housing.
Mental-health advocates and policy experts say the parties’ campaign promises represent a breakthrough in putting mental-health care on the political agenda.
“We have never been in this position in the mental health and addictions world before where all three parties have prioritized mental health and addictions, and all of them have committed to substantial funding,” says Camille Quenneville, chief executive of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario division.
In previous elections, Ms. Quenneville says, mental health was never singled out as a priority.
Moreover, she says, all three parties have offered plans that are very realistic.
“Not one of them is offside, not one of them is outside the realm of where we need to be going with this,” Ms. Quenneville says. “They differ slightly, but the crux of it is a desire … to get people the help that they need.”
Here’s a closer look at what they’re proposing:
Liberals: The Liberal Party has promised to spend an additional $2.1-billion over four years to rebuild the province’s mental-health and addiction-care system. This includes reducing wait times, hiring 400 more mental-health workers in high schools, and funding mental-health promotion workers at colleges and universities. The Liberals also say they will fund 2,475 new supportive housing units, and expand access to free psychotherapy for up to 350,000 more people with anxiety and depression.
NDP: The NDP says it will commit $2.4-billion in additional investment in mental-health and addictions services over four years. Its plan includes creating a new Ministry of Health and Addictions to replace the current patchwork of programs and services from multiple ministries, hiring 2,200 new mental-health-care workers, cutting down wait times to a maximum of 30 days for children and building 30,000 new supportive housing units. The NDP says it, too, would hire 400 more mental-health-care workers in high schools. Plus, it would declare a public-health emergency to tackle the opioid crisis.
Progressive Conservatives: The PCs have promised to invest $1.9-billion over 10 years in mental health and addictions care and housing supports, which they say will be matched by the federal government for a total of $3.8-billion. The party says this funding would go toward programs that would reduce pressures on hospitals and cut wait times. This would include providing more mental-health workers on college and university campuses, providing police with mental-health workers who can respond to mental-health calls, and supportive housing. The party says it would work closely with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Children’s Mental Health Ontario, and Addictions and Mental Health Ontario when allocating the funding.
What the experts say
Heather Bullock, a PhD candidate in health policy at McMaster University, says both the Liberals and NDP have fairly comprehensive platforms and offer similar investments to improve access to care. By comparison, the PC plan provides less detail.
The pledge from all three parties to create more supportive housing is a much-needed investment, she says, noting that the idea of helping people improve their mental health and reduce harms related to mental illness and addiction by providing them with stable homes is supported by solid research. However, Ms. Bullock says, it’s unknown whether the parties’ plans for new housing will be enough to meet the demand. Currently, many people don’t even apply for supportive housing because the waiting lists are so long, she says.
With its promise of a dedicated new ministry, the NDP has been most explicit in addressing the need to develop the infrastructure to monitor and guide the mental-health-care system, so that people aren’t dealing with silos of care, Ms. Bullock says. But, she says, this approach has yet to be proven. B.C. created a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions last year, and mental-health experts are still waiting to see whether this model improves the co-ordination of care.
Meanwhile, she says, the Liberal promise of expanding free access to psychotherapy opens up a new type of service for people who, for now, may have access to drug therapy, but not to talk therapies.
Both the Liberal and NDP plans address the opioid epidemic by proposing to work with front-line health-care workers and those with lived experiences. Ms. Quenneville says while the opioid epidemic is, indeed, a crisis, aside from the NDP’s intention to declare it a public-health emergency, what is really needed is a long-term strategy to mitigate the use of opioids.
Ms. Moran says she is pleased to see both the Liberals’ and NDP’s commitments to improving mental-health care specifically for children and youth. And she notes that while the PCs have not explicitly mentioned investments for this population, she is happy they have stated they would turn to her association for advice.
Providing proper and timely care for children and young people is critical, she says, and in many cases, early intervention can head off the need for more intensive care later on. “It’s not only more effective to get to kids when they’re first showing signs of mental-health issues, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.”
Ms. Moran, however, says once the election is over, she hopes the new government can swiftly deliver on its promises.
“We are thrilled about these foundational commitments, but the reality is they have to move quickly,” she says. “No matter which party wins, we need immediate increased investments.”