10/10/2017 12:18 EDT | Updated 10/10/2017 12:21 EDT

Ontario Has The Solutions To Its Mental-Health Crisis. Let's End It

The Liberal government needs to stop dragging its feet on dealing with mental health and addictions. We clearly have a crisis.

Seventeen-year-old mental-health advocate Noah Irvine lost both his parents to mental-health issues — his dad to an overdose, his mom to suicide.

Noah is working to try to change the system so this tragedy doesn't happen to other families.

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His ask to the province is simple. He wants to see the Ontario government follow through on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions. Released in 2010, the report has sadly collected dust for seven years.

Noah told me over coffee at a Timmy's in Guelph that he wouldn't have lost his dad if the Ontario government had acted on the committee's recommendations.

Noah and his family are not alone. Thousands of Ontarians are caught between long wait times for publicly funded therapists and the high cost for access to private ones. Children experience especially long wait times of up to 18 months for access to mental-health services.

Over 12,000 young people are waiting desperately for access to long-term or intensive mental-health therapy. According to Children's Mental Health Ontario, "As many as one in five children and youth in Ontario will experience some form of mental health problem. But five out of six of those kids will not receive the treatment they need."

The place to start is by acting on solutions already proposed by experts.

Ontario has experienced a 60 per cent increase in hospitalizations and 54 per cent increase in emergency department visits for children and youth seeking treatment for mental-health issues in the past decade. Yet, provincial funding for community-based mental-health services for children has barely changed since 1992.

The abysmal lack of mental-health services pushes many people onto the streets and into hospitals. But our overcrowded hospitals are not equipped to handle the rising number of mental-health patients.

Blogger Marvin Ross has documented the ridiculous loop people go through being discharged and readmitted. These people are caught between systems — being too sick for admittance in a residence but not sick enough for hospital. The result is people falling through the gaps, not able to get the help they need. In a particularly sad case, Ross asks if Ontario was complicit in a father's murder.

Meanwhile, the opioid crisis is devastating Ontario. Over 400 people died in the first six months of last year alone. Sadly, that number is likely higher for this year. Over 700 doctors, nurses, harm reduction workers and academics have called on the Ontario government to declare a state of emergency.

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The Liberal government needs to stop dragging its feet on dealing with mental health and addictions. We clearly have a crisis.

The government needs to act urgently. The place to start is by acting on solutions already proposed by experts.

Declare the opioid crisis a state of emergency

This will help funds not only flow faster, but also provide focused, coordinated government leadership to combat the crisis. Yes, frontline staff need more money, but they also need a coordinated strategy that works across levels of government, ministries and agencies.

Integrate mental health and addictions programs

Create a new umbrella organization — Mental Health and Addictions Ontario — and consolidate all mental-health and addictions programs under its umbrella. This is the transformative structural change that the Select Committee recommended. This change would provide the coordinated and dynamic leadership that health-care providers want and need to address the mental-health and addictions crisis — including the opioid emergency — on an ongoing permanent basis.

Lip service means nothing if we don't act.

Act on recommendations from expert reports

This includes reports on items like reforming privacy law and improving legislation on involuntary treatment. The province needs to dust off the recommendations from the Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions, as well as the 16 other reports the province has conducted on reforming mental health care since 1983. The Select Committee report contains 23 recommendations. Two of them would require little money — reforming the privacy laws and improving the legislation on involuntary treatment — and according to Noah Irvine may have saved his dad's life.

Provide proper funding to mental health and addictions services

Finally, the government is going to have to provide proper funding for mental health and addictions. Children's mental-health advocates are asking for a $118 million immediate investment. They argue this will help the province save $1 billion in hospitals costs. The Canadian Mental Health Association is calling for mental health's share of health-care funding to increase by two per cent, which would be a step in the right direction but still leave us far behind other countries.

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There is wide acceptance in Ontario that we need to do more to address mental health and addictions.

But lip service means nothing if we don't act. Far too many people are left untreated, struggling to make it through the day, and in the most severe cases wander the streets homeless, find themselves in jail or, worse yet, dead. We can't let this tragedy continue.

Today is World Mental Health Day. Let's make 2017 the year when Ontario starts down the path of properly addressing mental-health and addictions issues.

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