Louise Bradley is president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada
Minority parliaments are able to move public policy significantly when all parties collaborate and compromise on the issues. After all, Lester B. Pearson’s minority government can claim credit for putting the capstone on public health care, one of Canada’s prized institutions, by ushering in the Medical Care Act in 1966.
As parliamentarians return to Ottawa this week, they have another once-in-a-generation opportunity to work together to deliver on one of this government’s key health promises: national standards for mental health care to ensure every Canadian can access services where and when they need them most.
It’s an ambitious but long-overdue goal as we enter a new decade.
Ten years ago, mental health was a mere blip on the radar. Today, the subject is poised to take over the airwaves as Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign sweeps the country with a deluge of texts and tweets promoting mental health and mental illness prevention and treatment.
A poll by Nanos Research commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) found more than three-quarters of Canadians consider mental health an important policy priority, and nine in 10 want increased funding and access to services.
We can’t afford to wait any longer. Mental illness costs the Canadian economy $50-billion annually; that’s nearly $1,400 for every single one of us.
The Nanos poll found half of the respondents said they or someone they know have experienced a delay in getting mental health support. Wait times for services can exceed a year or more in some provinces, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, if left untreated, certain mental illnesses can prove fatal. Every year, 4,000 Canadian lives are lost to suicide.
The federal government has heeded this outcry by earmarking a historic $5-billion investment in mental health. The recent speech from the throne highlighted it as a pressing social policy issue – a sentiment that mirrors the will of Canadians.
But we must do more to meaningfully respond now, and over the next decade, to the urgent mental health needs of people in Canada. The promise of national standards for access to mental health care can only be fulfilled if mental wellness gains parity with physical health when it comes to government investments and supports.
We need smart, targeted and measurable investments in mental health to improve access to services – beyond bricks-and-mortar clinics. Stagnant wait-lists and inadequate supports leave many Canadians out in the cold. Over the next decade, with a bold vision and collaborative approach, we can apply the same efforts to eradicating wait-lists as we did to tackling stigma, an effort still very much under way.
Let’s put our dollars into skills-based mental health training, like that offered by the innovators at Strongest Families Institute. Their low-cost, barrier-free mental health services have helped countless families manage anxiety and challenging behavioural concerns – with 85 per cent reporting positive outcomes.
We already know there are programs that work. Stepped Care 2.0 – which combines e-mental health technologies and single-session walk-in counselling – has reduced wait times by upward of 68 per cent in some communities. This approach, pioneered by Peter Cornish, was scaled up with the support of the MHCC and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m proud to say my home province is leading the way – with other jurisdictions eagerly seeking to reap the benefits of its success.
The stagnant model of care we continue to rely on didn’t even work 10 years ago, when far fewer people perceived mental health problems as legitimate and treatable.
Today, six in 10 people in Canada report that they or someone they know has experienced a mental illness, and one in three are living with or caring for someone experiencing a mental health problem. As a result, we need to put our dollars where they will stretch the furthest and have the greatest impact.
As the Hon. Michael Wilson, the late chair of the MHCC, once said: funding for mental health must include the “latitude for proving the sound economics of creative approaches.”
It’s time to prove him right. Millions of Canadians are depending on it.
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