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Ontario unveils $60-million project to help mentally ill

Health Minister Deb Matthews announced Jan. 28, 2014, the newly created Medical Psychiatry Alliance, which will offer support across the province

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

On a day when Canadians across the country texted and tweeted to support mental health, the Ontario government unveiled a $60-million project to help the mentally ill when they fall physically ill.

The new Medical Psychiatry Alliance will use research and education – including a "simulation centre" featuring live actors – to teach doctors and nurses better ways to diagnose and treat the mentally ill who turn up in hospital.

"This changes how people with mental illness will be cared for in our health-care system," Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said on Tuesday at a news conference marking Bell Let's Talk Day.

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The telecommunications giant is donating to mental health initiatives five cents for every text and social media mention of the campaign.

The goal of the Medical Psychiatry Alliance is to ensure complex conditions such as schizophrenia and depression do not prevent patients from getting their bum knees fixed or cancer diagnosed.

It also aims to work the other way around, teaching health-care providers to recognize, for example, undiagnosed anxiety in patients who think they are having a heart attack.

The province is contributing one-third of the $60-million funding for the Alliance over six years. A GTA businessman and philanthropist who asked to remain anonymous donated $20-million.

The University of Toronto, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the Hospital for Sick Children and Trillium Health Partners, made up of three hospitals in Mississauga and Etobicoke, are covering the balance.

"Our patients at CAMH die of unrecognized or poorly managed diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer," said Catherine Zahn, president and chief executive officer of CAMH. "The stigma of mental illness, prejudice and discrimination play a big role in this inequity."

That stigma was a factor in the death from cancer last year of a friend's 48-year-old daughter, Dr. Zahn said.

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"The irony is there are actually good treatments for the type of cancer she had," she said. "But by the time she received her diagnosis, it was way too late. My friend's daughter also lived with schizophrenia, and there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that her diagnosis of mental illness created multiple obstacles that precluded early diagnosis, treatment and, in fact, possibly cure."

The U of T and the hospitals are expected to collaborate on the alliance's projects, including developing new screening and diagnostic tools for patients with mental illness, and offering specialized clinical training for medical students. The simulation centre, where students and health-care professionals can practise helping the mentally ill in real time, will be created at CAMH. In the program, actors will pose as mentally ill patients for lessons that can be taught live or virtually.

It is a bid to catch up to the rest of the medical system, where doctors-in-training use simulations to hone their skills.

"We have come a long way in providing simulation enterprises that focus on doing procedures and on the physical aspects of health care," Dr. Zahn said. "We haven't done enough to ensure that people have the interviewing skills, the counselling skills, the ability to identify difficult and problem issues for individuals with mental illness and addictions."

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