Canadian Mental Health Comission a promising start

Watching a federal budget announcement is not always very exciting television – but it does give us a good indication of what our government has planned for our significant tax dollars in the coming years.

This year I was pleasantly surprised by a small announcement in the midst of the budget details - the creation of a Canadian Mental Health Commission.

Finance minister Jim Flaherty announced the commission, which is intended to create a national mental health strategy with a specific action plan to improve the state of mental health care in our country. Former senator Michael Kirby will head the commission – an excellent next step for him after authoring last year’s report “Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada”.

Kirby’s report in 2006 provided detailed analysis of the current mental health care system in our country. In it he also made 118 recommendations for improving mental health care in Canada.

A few key areas that need improvement include mental health care services for the workplace, children and aboriginals as well as improved knowledge exchange, stigma reduction, care for those in correctional facilities and affordable housing for the mentally ill.

One in eight Canadians in the workforce has a diagnosable mental illness and mental health problems are the leading cause of missed work days. However, since mental illness is still widely under-recognized and not taken seriously, it continues to cost individuals and companies a great deal.

Similarly, one in five school-aged children suffer from a mental illness but treatment is very difficult to access and there are often long waitlists to see appropriate specialists. In the meantime, children are unable to function or meet their full potential and suicide is the leading cause of death among Canadian children and teenagers. We need to address this tragedy.

Canada’s aboriginal population also has high rates of mental illness, addiction and suicide and effective, culturally appropriate and accessible treatment is very difficult to find.

Since accessibility is a problem for all populations, a better system of knowledge exchange between physicians and regional mental health programs is needed. If regions shared their best practices, it would be easier to set up effective programs where there is a need for them.

As I have discussed in several previous columns, mental illness is still stigmatized in our society. Mr. Kirby’s report called for a 10-year social marketing campaign to erase stigma and this could go a long way toward raising awareness of the reality of mental illness.

Another topic I have discussed in the past is the over-population of Canada’s prison system with the mentally ill. After the closure of many in-patient mental health facilities, our prisons have taken the place of those medical beds. One in five prisoners has a severe mental illness – community programs and better access to services will help to decriminalize mental illness.

Finally, affordable housing is a serious problem facing Canadians living with mental illness. Mr. Kirby estimated that there are more than 140,000 Canadians suffering from mental illness who are currently precariously housed or homeless. This is unacceptable and we need to address the huge need for affordable housing.

Our federal budget has allocated $10 million over the next two years for this commission with an additional $15 million annually to begin in 2009-2010. This money and the action plan Mr. Kirby has the opportunity to create could prove to be a great start toward erasing the reputation of Canadian mental health services as being the orphan of health care.

When we can make mental health a priority in our nation, improve access, promote community mental health initiatives and coordinate service across disciplines and regions, we could not only improve our system, but also help to improve the quality of life for thousands of Canadians who currently suffer in the shadows.


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