Mental health must be treated the same as physical health

By MPP Toby Barrett

Finance Committee’s pre-budget hearings have wrapped up for another year.

In almost every city the committee heard about the impacts of mental health on people in Ontario. It is clear the government is not doing enough to support children and youth mental health issues. Presenters stressed mental health must be treated the same as physical health.

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Canada, and its economic burden is estimated at $51 billion a year.

Mary-Anne Leahy of the New Mentality, a provincial network of youth with mental illness, presented this information to the Finance Committee. She knows about mental health problems first-hand. Her 37-year-old brother has mental health problems. His parents tried to get assistance when he was 12, but were not successful. As a result, he has been unable to keep a job for more than a few months and struggles with meaningful relationships. In her job she still hears this today.

“I don’t understand why people fighting to stay alive also have to fight to get treatment in Ontario,” she said to the committee.

Kim Moran, CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, spoke about her daughter having suicidal thoughts. After trying to get help, she was told to wait until her daughter made an attempt on her life before there would be help.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “It would be like saying to a kid with cancer, ‘Wait until it spreads all over your body before we get help for you’. It’s unacceptable, and all of us should be outraged by that.”

Moran presented some other startling facts:

* A quarter of Ontario youth report missing school from anxiety.

* A third of parents take time off work to help their children with mental health issues.

* More than 40 per cent of youth who try to access mental health treatment can’t access the treatment they need.

There was a 67 per cent increase in hospital stays for young people with mental health in the last decade. This costs the province $190 million every year, and is increasing. Government has cut spending to community health agencies by over 50 per cent in the past 25 years.

The solution isn’t easy, but there are ways forward.

For example, in our area the Catholic Women’s League has been championing the cause with a postcard campaign calling for more funding for suicide prevention.

The Official Opposition is proposing to spend $1.9 billion in the province’s mental health system — the largest mental health commitment in Canadian history.

The investment must be comprehensive and multifaceted, targeting several programs.

People with mental health issues take up a large amount of time for police officers. Expanding the Crisis Outreach and Support Team pilot project, that teams plain clothes police officers with mental health workers, would help.

More investment in the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s First Link program could assist those diagnosed with dementia.

Targeted investments can reduce wait times for young people, including funding for schools and post-secondary institutions.

This could be part of the answer to the important question, posed by Leahy, “How many more youth have to die before the government does something about it and ensure that children and youth get the treatment they need as soon as they need it?”