Integrate mental health and addictions into the system

By MPP Toby Barrett

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, and health conditions affecting the brain can by among the most debilitating and challenging. Yet mental health and addiction has for too long been treated as an afterthought in our health system.

Ontario must confront the human and economic toll of mental illness and addiction by taking down barriers to compassionate and effective treatment. Mental health is as important as physical health. It’s time we treated it that way.

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety, affects 20 per cent of teenagers before age 18. That’s around half a million young Ontarians wrestling with these issues everyday. Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15 to 24. One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The remaining four have a friend, family member or colleague who will.

As for addiction, it’s not just a big city problem. I regularly hear about the misuse of narcotic analgesics like oxycodone here in our riding.

The total lifetime cost of caring for one person with untreated mental illness has been estimated at $1.5 million. Further, economist Don Drummond reported in 2012 the economic costs of mental health and addiction in Ontario are $39 billion per year.

Lack of integration is a critical issue for our health system, but nowhere is it more evident than in mental health and addiction. Mental health and addiction services are scattered over 10 ministries, 440 children’s mental health agencies, 330 community agencies, 150 addiction agencies and 50 problem gambling centres.

Four years ago, Ontario’s Auditor General referred to accountability-related concerns such as lack of coordination and collaboration and a lack of information about quality and quantity with respect to child and youth mental health services. He also expressed concern about the lack of consistency in the practices of community mental health providers, the autonomy with which child mental health providers operate and the resulting patchwork of services.

In my constituency office we hear too often from families who are attempting to navigate the system for a loved one. In many cases the patient sees three or four different professionals, which seems great at first blush until each of them start prescribing treatment without talking to one another.

It’s time to recognize children’s mental health as a part of the health care system, whereas today it falls under the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. To learn more, visit Paths to Prosperity: A Fresh Start for Children and Youth.

Last week the Official Opposition released the most recent white paper Paths to Prosperity: A Healthier Ontario. This white paper builds on the findings of an all-party select committee which heard about people’s inability to obtain age-appropriate services close to home, long waiting lists and long lapses between assessment and treatment. Clients are sometimes restricted from accessing services provided outside their home area.

Throughout the province we have a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of mental health and addictions. However, we are not listening to experts and organizing our resources effectively.

Ontario needs a 21st century model of care that is proactive and based on integration, chronic disease management, disease prevention and health promotion, with all decisions based on objective evidence.