Skip to main content

The Mental Health Commission of Canada released a report on Thursday that, for the first time, pulled together exsting data on 13 mental-health indicators, including suicide rates, readmission to hospital for mental-health patients and self-harm among postsecondary students.Thinkstock

Canada's health-care system is still a long way from measuring and treating mental illness with the rigour it brings to cancer or heart disease, but a new national report on the subject is a step in the right direction, experts say.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada released a report on Thursday that, for the first time, pulled together existing data on 13 mental-health indicators, including suicide rates, readmission to hospital for mental-health patients and self-harm among postsecondary students.

The federally funded commission is set to release another 50 indicators in April, a step it hopes will help fix a long-standing issue when it comes to mental health – the health-care system cannot solve what it cannot measure.

"This is the first really serious national look at mental-health indicators and it's a solid start," said Chris Simpson of the Canadian Medical Association, representing more than 80,000 physicians. "There's more coming, which I hope will be even better, but this doesn't put [mental health] yet on par with the so-called higher-profile disease groups like cancer and cardiac care."

Thursday's report on the first 13 indicators presents a mixed picture. Some of the findings, drawn from previous studies by organizations such as Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information, are real cause for concern, said David Goldbloom, chair of the commission and a Toronto psychiatrist.

Dr. Goldbloom, who is also the senior medical adviser at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, pointed to Canada's suicide rate of 10.8 per 100,000 people in 2011 as troubling, noting it is higher than in some other developed nations.

He also zeroed in on the severe stress reported by 16.5 per cent of people caring for ill loved ones and the intentional self-harm reported by 6.6 per cent of postsecondary students.

But Dr. Goldbloom stressed that what matters most is whether the freshly collected information spurs change. "Measurement for measurement's sake may be very satisfying to people who count [statistics], but not so much help to people who suffer."

Another domain of concern is how long it takes to get mental-health treatment, on which Canada does not measure well, according to Mark Ferdinand, the national director for public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, a community-based mental-health support and advocacy organization. "We don't know how people are doing after they've left hospital," he said. "If somebody has been referred to a community-based organization outside of hospital, how long did it take them to receive care or support? We don't know."