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Mental Illness in Canada: Forty Years of Neglect

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Lack of services for the mentally ill is becoming an issue for the upcoming election in Ontario. Many are not impressed with what this government has accomplished in its two terms.

The Liberals took power on Oct. 23, 2003 and inherited a report on mental illness reform called The Time is Now. The ten regional reports plus a consolidated report had been commissioned by the Conservative government and was presented in December, 2002. Co-chair of the committee was former federal cabinet minister, Michael Wilson, who described the Ontario system as being based on 30 years of neglect.

The incoming Liberals assured all that they would study the reports and take action. They did not. In fact, on April 8, 2009, Ms. Sarah Cannon, the executive director of Parents For Children's Mental Health (PCMH) commented to the Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions in her submission that it had been nine years since that report and "we would like to see action and a plan".

Six years after coming to power and seven years after that report, former health minister David Caplan set up a roundtable discussion group called Every Door is the Right Door in July 2009. At about the same time, an all-party Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions was established

Under Liberal chair Kevin Flynn and Conservative vice chair Christine Elliott, the committee, over a period of 18 months, heard 230 presenters and received 300 submissions in 30 meetings throughout the province. They submitted their report on Aug. 26, 2010.

As Steve Lurie, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto stated in a letter to the Toronto Star on Dec. 31, 2010, this "is the fifth report in the past 20 years to call for an accessible, community focused mental health system." Lurie pointed out that "countries like Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand have been able to improve their systems by increasing the mental health share of health spending on evidence-based mental health services, which in turn drives down hospital costs and improves outcomes."

But, because of continued dissatisfaction, a coalition was created to challenge candidates. The Ontario Mental Health and Addictions Alliance is made up of 10 groups in Ontario including the Centre For Addictions and Mental Health (the largest mental health teaching hospital in Canada), Addictions Ontario, the Canadian Mental Health Association and The Mood Disorders Association. Their press release stated that "political candidates across the province can expect to regularly hear demands for action."

At the same time, PCMH, a non-profit organization which supports families raising children and youth with mental illness, has launched the Pledge for Child and Youth Mental Health campaign. They hope to "raise public awareness about children's mental health issues and build support with candidates of all parties to reform children's mental health services and their delivery in Ontario."

"Child and youth mental health services are inadequate, fragmented, underfunded and inconsistently delivered from one community to the next", Sarah Cannon of PCMH, stated. She added that
"Our goal is to educate candidates from all political parties so that after the October 6 election there will be dozens of child and youth mental health champions sitting on all sides of the legislature."

In March, select committee member Mrs. Maria Von Baumel asked the minister: "can you tell us what the government is doing in response to the recommendations of the select committee, which were intended to build a better system to support Ontarians with mental health challenges?"

Minister Matthews replied with "it is complex. It involves many ministries, and it involves community partners as well. We are taking the time to get it right, but we are committed to releasing it this spring".

The government did announce increased funding for children's mental health in it's spring budget and Ministry of Health spokesperson, Andrew Morrison, said that the ministry already has a 10 year mental health strategy in place. The government has made a commitment in that budget to increase spending on children and youth to $93 million by 2013. Improving mental health is a concern but to get it right, Morrison said, the ministry is investing a great deal of planning work at the front end of this 10 year strategy.

The Select Committee recommendations have been fed into this planning group. When asked if he was aware of the 2002 report, the ministry spokesperson said no. It is doubtful if anyone else at the Ministry is aware of all the work that has gone on before. If we add the current Liberal progress to the 30 years of neglect that Michael Wilson mentioned in 2002, we now have close to 40 years of neglect.

Marvin Ross is a Dundas, Ontario writer and publisher with a particular interest in mental health. He is the author of Schizophrenia, Medicine's Mystery Society's Shame. His company, Bridgeross Communications, publishes After Her Brain Broke: Helping My Daughter Recovery Her Sanity and My Schizophrenic Life: The Road to Recovery From Mental Illness. He is also the producer of the documentary film on schizophrenia, The Brush, The Pen and Recovery.

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