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editorial

People with depression or anxiety disorder make up 80 per cent of the Canadians who suffer from a mental illness.Peter Tym/The Globe and Mail

Imagine if one of the provinces – Alberta, Ontario, B.C., take your pick – decided that cancer was no longer covered by medicare. Suddenly, tens of thousands of people would have to pay for treatment out of their own pockets. The luckier ones might have a benefits package that paid for a few rounds of chemo, although not enough to bring about a cure or remission. Some people would die without ever having their disease diagnosed.

Impossible, right? Voters would rise up and demand that cancer be treated just like every other major medical condition. The government responsible for delisting it would be turfed from office ASAP, its leader saddled with a legacy of failure.

So why are treatable diseases that affect one-and-a-half times more people than cancer still not properly covered by medicare? We're talking about depression and anxiety, ailments suffered by 80 per cent of the millions of Canadians who have a mental illness.

People with these disorders are being treated by overburdened and undertrained family doctors. Or they are getting a few sessions with a therapist that is covered by their work benefits, but have to stop when that runs out. Or they are simply going without treatment – until they wind up in a crisis.

The consequence of failing to fund the treatment of depression and anxiety is costing the health-care system billions in the treatment of other, related ailments, such as heart disease. Further billions are swirling down the drain in lost wages and lowered productivity. The argument that funding therapy would save money in the long run is persuasive.

Plus, we live in an age when awareness and acceptance of mental illnesses are on the rise. The federal and provincial governments have been among those leading the charge to remove stigmas.

Yet there is no level of government that has said, Let's publicly fund therapy. It is unavailable through medicare except in the most extreme cases – sort of like only funding the treatment of cancers that have already metastasized.

It's up to the provinces to fix this, since health is largely provincial turf. Some are moving slowly in that direction. Quebec is studying a proposal to fund psychotherapy; Ontario now requires psychotherapists to register with a provincial college, a necessary first step toward coverage.

Canada should eventually join the ranks of enlightened countries – England, Australia and Germany, among others – that fund therapy. So why put it off? The required consensus exists now. Seize the moment.