Premier Kathleen Wynne is promising $2.1-billion to rebuild Ontario’s mental-health system over the next four years as her long-governing Liberals face a tough re-election fight.
The new funding, which will allow the hiring of hundreds of mental-health workers in high schools – and tops up the $3.8-billion the province already spends annually on mental health – will go to a system health professionals say is in crisis, with many Ontarians struggling to get help.
Wednesday’s announcement comes as Ms. Wynne continues to unveil an election platform heavy on new health-care spending. Speaking at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, she said the new money for mental health comes after years of calls for the government to do more.
“There is no question that we can do more and we will,” she said. “Over the next four years, we are going to rebuild the system and open doors to mental-health care in communities across Ontario.”
She said the new funding will allow 12,000 young people to access therapy and counselling by 2019. Every high school in the province will get an additional mental-health worker within two years, requiring about 400 new positions. Psychotherapy for as many as 350,000 people suffering from mild to moderate anxiety or depression will also be publicly funded.
Camille Quenneville, the head of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario division, said the new funding is “a monumental first step to fixing a mental-health and addiction system that has been in crisis for many years.”
While both of Ontario’s opposition parties have called on the government to increase mental-health spending, they struggled on Wednesday to support Ms. Wynne’s move to do exactly that.
Before the Premier’s announcement, Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod sent a letter to the Finance Minister asking him to match the Official Opposition’s proposal to increase such spending. In the party’s now-defunct platform, the “People’s Guarantee,” the Tories said they would spend an additional $1.9-billion on the issue if they were to form government. The document describes their proposal as “the largest mental-health commitment in Canadian provincial history.”
The opposition finance critic said the timing of the $2.1-billion announcement only hours later was suspect.
“The only thing they care about is re-election … I question their motive. This is the 11th hour, 78 days before an election campaign, and the government presided over a broken system for 15 years and did nothing to fix it until now,” said Ms. MacLeod, who has been vocal about her own mental-health struggles and the government’s need to do more.
What she could not confirm on Wednesday was whether her party was still committed to its proposal. Doug Ford, the party’s new Leader, has said he will not abide by the old platform. Ms. MacLeod said she had yet to see her new Leader’s spending document and did not know if it would maintain the promise of new spending on mental health.
“We’ll put forward our plan in the coming days, and there will be a platform and we will be able to defend it,” she said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed Ms. MacLeod’s concerns about the Liberals taking too long to move. “Today’s announcement is at least a decade overdue, and that delay has caused incredible suffering for families across Ontario,” she said.
The NDP has said it will create a dedicated Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions if it forms government.