Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic May 09, 2012 - 5:26 am

Mental health strategy calls for big cash infusion

"Timely access to the full range of options"

SPECIAL TO NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Changing Directions, Changing Lives makes more than 100 recommendations designed to improve Canada's mental health services.
Changing Directions, Changing Lives makes more than 100 recommendations designed to improve Canada's mental health services.

SHARON KIRKEY
Postmedia News

The nation’s first mental-health strategy is calling for an overhaul of a system it calls so fractured and under-funded that it’s turning prisons and jails into the “asylums of the 21st century” and leading many community service groups to drop waiting lists to avoid giving people false hope that “eventually their turn will come.”

The strategy, from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, calls for spending on mental health to increase from seven to nine per cent of total health spending over 10 years, an increase of $3 to $4 billion. According to the commission, the economic impact of mental illness on Canada’s economy is “enormous” — at least $50 billion annually.

The strategy’s 109 recommendations include:

• creating mentally healthy workplaces (an estimated $6 billion is lost every year due to absenteeism and “presenteeism,” meaning people who go to work sick, commission staff said);

• more community and school-based mental illness prevention programs targeted at children and youth, especially those most at risk because of poverty, having a parent with a mental-health or addiction problem or family violence, and more support for parents and caregivers;

• shifting policies and practices toward a “recovery and well being” model;

• reducing the use of seclusion and restraints in hospitals;

• improving access to treatments, including publicly funded psychotherapy and medications;

• more screening for mental-health problems and suicide risk, and more support for groups with high overall suicide rates, including older men, First Nations and Inuit youth, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. According to the commission, of the 4,000 Canadians who die from suicide each year, the majority were suffering from a mental illness;

• stopping disclosure in police record checks of instances when police uses provisions of a Mental Health Act to apprehend a person who is in crisis — information that can be disclosed even when no offence has been committed and no charges laid, making it difficult for people to volunteer or get a job, and;

• more “diversion programs,” including mental-health courts and restorative justice programs to keep people living with mental-health illnesses out of prison.

“People living with mental-health problems and illnesses — whatever their age and however severe their mental-health problems or illness — and their families should be able to count on timely access to the full range of options for mental-health services, treatments and supports, just as they would expect if they were confronting heart disease or cancer,” states the strategy, Changing Directions, Changing Lives.

The mental-health commission was born from the groundbreaking 2006 Senate committee report Out of the Shadows at Last — the most exhaustive study of mental health in the nation’s history.

The strategy calls for more efforts aimed at defeating the stigma “that has blighted people’s attitudes for far too long and has fed the discrimination that so many have endure.”

Children and youth are among the focus. Studies suggest 70 per cent of all mental illness has its onset in childhood or adolescence.

In the last two years alone, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa has seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of crisis visits to its emergency department.

“The current system is not equipped to handle this surge,” Alex Munter, the hospital’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “As a society, we need to do things differently, invest differently, and organize differently.”

The former mental health commissioner, Michael Kirby, also a former well-known senator, said that mental health needs a social movement as powerful as the breast-cancer movement.

“Look where we are — we’re at the point where my grandkids all know what the pink ribbon stands for,” Kirby, co-author of the senate report on mental health, told Postmedia News. Money has poured into breast cancer research and services, he said, “Because there were a whole pile of Canadians who got together and organized under the social movement of the breast cancer societies to say, ‘we’ve really got to do something.’

By contrast, “There has never been in Canada any organization that was able to show that thousands of Canadians across the country really want in this case mental health, treated seriously,” he said.

You can read the strategy report here.

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