Focus on children first in tackling mental health

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Tue May 08 2012.

Canadians with cancer, heart disease, diabetes and just about every other physical illness don’t think twice about going to their doctor for help. But, when it comes to mental illness just one in three affected adults and as few as one in four children seek and receive treatment.

For some, stigma and fear keep them from getting the medical care they need. Others desperately want treatment but can’t find the appropriate services in their community or face long waitlists. This is why Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called mental illness “a major national public health problem” and, in 2007, created a national agency to tackle it.

This week, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released its blueprint for a national strategy to properly treat and support Canadians with mental illness. The comprehensive document covers every aspect of what needs to change – from how employers and schools handle mental illness to the need for more affordable housing and a reformed justice system that doesn’t criminalize illness.

The danger now, though, is that rather than embracing the challenge, Harper may throw up his hands at the enormity of it all – and the seemingly high price-tag that comes with it. That can’t be allowed to happen. The status quo is not an option when one Canadian in five suffers some form of mental illness every year and it costs our economy more than $50 billion, according to the commission.

If Ottawa needs a manageable place to begin improving the lives of Canadians, why not start with our kids? In many communities, children and youth face the greatest shortage of mental health services. Resources spent on children have enormous impact. Early identification and treatment can save young people from a lifetime of challenges that come with untreated mental illness.

Without proper health services and community support, childhood mental illness can stress families to the breaking point. Children drop out of school, wind up in homeless shelters or, worse still, the prison system. Crown wards and First Nations youth are particularly vulnerable to this downward spiral.

Focusing on children will also teach everyone involved about the extraordinary level of cooperation and coordination that is required. This is not just a health problem. The solutions cross federal-provincial boundaries and run across multiple ministries, including health, education, social services, housing and corrections.

Breaking down those silos will require strong federal leadership. That, unfortunately, is not something this Conservative government has shown much interest in, especially in the health care.

When Prime Minister Harper launched this commission he promised “their work will improve quality of life for Canadians and their families dealing with mental illness.”

Whether that happens depends on what his government does now. So far, it isn’t looking promising. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq welcomed the report and committed the government – not to action, but to yet more research.

The 6.7 million Canadians suffering with a mental health problem or illness deserve better than that.

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