Senate mental health plan seeks to bring illness `out of the shadows`

Last month the senate committee on social affairs, science and technology published a report on the state of mental health care in Canada.

Titled “Out of the Shadows at Last”, this 300 page document presents many areas of concern within our existing system of mental health care and states that profound change is required if individuals living with mental illness are to receive the help they need and deserve.

The first chapter of the report discussed many issues from the perspective of individuals living with mental illness in our country. More than 2,000 submissions were made to the senate committee from mental health care consumers across Canada and these were quoted directly in the report.

Some areas of major concern include issues such as a lack of services, difficulty accessing services, confusion and frustration about mental health services as well as a lack of knowledge and compassion by many health care practitioners.

In order for individuals to feel confident in dealing with mental illness and addictions, it is important for them to be able to learn what services are available and access those services in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, with waiting times extremely long and with little cooperation between different services, access can be confusing and very difficult.

Further, stigma was addressed as a major concern for individuals living with mental illness in our country. I have addressed this in several columns in the past, but negative stigma from some health care professionals, employers and society at large is still a significant problem facing people with mental illness.

Many individuals quoted within the report shared stories of losing credibility at work and in social settings as a result of their illness. Some also told stories of health care professionals who would not take their problems seriously or assist them in locating appropriate care and supports.

Discrimination from insurance companies is still a major problem for individuals with mental illness in Canada and makes it very difficult to get life, disability or medical insurance once a mental illness has been identified. It is still legal for insurance companies to discriminate against those with a history of mental illness by denying coverage to these individuals.

Increasing public awareness to mental health issues is one way to battle stigma. This report urged more education and awareness about mental illness within society through media and focused education campaigns. It is very likely that increasing awareness about the reality of mental illness will decrease the ignorance and fear many people have regarding the mentally ill.

One submission in the senate report expressed a desire for increased media coverage of real mental illness rather than sensationalized accounts. This individual hoped that by showing this, it would teach people that individuals with mental illness, “are not homicidal maniacs as depicted on TV, but are friends, neighbours, professionals, etc.”

Others expressed a desire for recognition of mental illness as something that is equally as serious and devastating as physical illness.

Social circumstances, isolation and poverty are other barriers to mental health that the senate committee identified in this report. Adequate housing, financial stability and social supports are all necessary for individuals dealing with mental illness and addictions. When these needs are not met, it is difficult if not impossible to move toward full recovery.

Unfortunately, many people interviewed by the senate committee found that these issues are largely overlooked in spite of their importance.


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