05/08/2012 01:36 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa welcomes mental health strategy, but will federal funding follow?

OTTAWA - Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is officially welcoming the country's first national mental health strategy, although it's unclear what role Ottawa will take in its implementation.

The mere presence of Aglukkaq at the Tuesday launch of the Mental Health Commission of Canada's blueprint for overhauling mental-health care suggests the federal government will be a player of some kind.

However Prime Minister Stephen Harper has often suggested that health- care delivery is best left to the provinces.

In her speech at the launch, Aglukkaq made no mention of the billions of federal and provincial dollars that would be required to make the strategy a reality.

Rather, she invited the head of the commission to attend an international conference on mental health with her and announced plans for more research into fighting homelessness among the mentally ill.

And she suggested that the role of the federal government is to support research, provide subsidies for community involvement and finance aboriginal health — as always.

The mental health strategy, released Monday, is the result of five years of research and consultation by the commission, paid for by the federal government.

"Today we have reached a milestone," Aglukkaq told a conference of stakeholders where the commission discussed the report "We now have a comprehensive document that is a reflection of the dedication of those who brought it to life."

The report calls on federal and provincial governments to overhaul and then co-ordinate their mental health services, by investing more than $4 billion over the next 10 years. It also urges companies to realize that mental illness costs them money and could be alleviated by serious attention to employees' mental health.

Mental health has never had a national strategy in Canada. Instead, researchers describe an underfunded patchwork of unreliable services that does a poor job of preventing mental illness.

"This strategy is a call for all of us, across different levels of government, in the corporate world and the volunteer sector, to find ways that each of us can make a difference," Aglukkaq said.

"No single person, group or government will succeed on its own. We must promote awareness among all Canadians and we must be sure that all issues of mental health are addressed at every level."

Some provinces have actively crafted mental health strategies, but many leaders in health services, as well as opposition critics, believe Ottawa must take a bigger role, to set out a common direction and provide funding.

"When one in five Canadians suffers from a mental-health problem or illness, costing our economy $50 billion a year, we cannot afford to stand idly by and pass the buck," said Liberal health critic Hedy Fry. "This Conservative government must demonstrate real leadership on this issue by properly funding and implementing the mental health strategy."

But some of the suggestions in the mental health strategy are likely to prove uncomfortable for the federal government. The report recommends paying attention to the social determinants of health — poverty, housing, trauma, marginalization and prejudice.

The federal government is already funding a major research project into resolving homelessness among the mentally ill by providing affordable housing. But money for that project will dry up in a couple of years.

And Aglukkaq announced a new project on Tuesday, saying she wants to commission more research into the question.

A spokesman for the minister said this does not necessarily mean Ottawa is ready to reject the "housing first" approach of the present research program.