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An Advisory Panel For Mental Health Issues Must Include Those Directly Affected

12/02/2014 05:27 EST | Updated 02/01/2015 05:59 EST

In my last post, I criticized Ontario Minister of Health Dr. Eric Hoskins for wasting money and time setting up a Mental Health and Addictions Leadership Advisory Council as part of his efforts to improve mental illness care in Ontario. Fellow Huffington Post blogger and mental health advocate, Arthur Gallant, disagreed. In a series of tweets between us, he told me that he is on that committee and "I will hold the Minister accountable and I already have a laundry list of recommendations for him. I will hold his feet to the fire."

And I have no doubt that he will but he is one amongst a total of nineteen people on the committee. There is one psychiatric survivor and eleven CEO's and/or Executive Directors of mental health agencies/hospitals. Psychiatric survivors are "a diverse association of individuals who either currently access mental health services (known as consumers or service users), or who consider themselves survivors of interventions by psychiatry, or who identify themselves as ex-patients of mental health services. The person who defines herself as a survivor also has lived experience with poverty.

There is not one family member of someone with a serious mental illness in this group.

This exclusion of families runs counter to the recommendations made in the Mental Health Commission of Canada report on Caregivers. They suggest (recommendation 31) that family caregivers participate in reviewing existing mental health services, identifying gaps, and designing plans to address these gaps with policy designers and mental health service administrators.

Freelance writer, Patricia Jane Teskey, commented on my last blog post that this advisory council was first suggested in 2011. She wrote to the former Health Minister, Deb Matthews, and asked if the committee would "include family caregivers of people with serious psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? And if not, when will that gaping problem be corrected?"

It took six months for her to get a reply, "that did not answer my question."

We have the answer now and it is no. Those with the experience to know of the gaps and the problems are again excluded. Instead, we get a bunch of people with an investment in the current system from agencies that likely receive significant funding from the Ministry to act as what looks like a Greek Chorus.

One of the 19 is the CEO of a Local Health Integration Network (LHIN). They are completely funded by the Ministry of Health and, a few years ago, as a caregiver for someone with a serious mental illness, I approached my own LHIN with a list of carefully documented complaints about an agency they were funding. We met, we exchanged e-mails and phone calls and in the end, nothing changed.

Toronto Star columnist, Bob Hepburn, was told confidentially by a top LHIN official that these organizations have "too much bureaucracy, soaring salaries for top bosses, a lack of coordination between individual LHINs and no accountability to Queen's Park." But one of them will give advice to the Ministry over that of family members who know first hand what the problems are.

So, while I'm confident that Mr Gallant will do his best on this committee, the deck is stacked against him making any difference. His participation reminds me of an old monologue by Woody Allen that I could not find on Youtube. Woody once said that he was hired by a Wall St Firm to be a show Jew. Senior managers pointed him out to customers as proof of their diversity while Woody looked as Jewish as possible. He told his audience that he wrote from left to right and ate matzoh sandwiches but he was eventually fired for taking off too many Jewish holidays.

Mr Gallant might find himself in the same position. In fact, he did one blog post in which he said that he was on a mental health panel and was bullied. Let's hope that does not happen this time and he makes an influence. But, we still need family caregivers on the panel to replace some of the bureaucrats.

Dr Hoskins, what is the reluctance to do so?