Busting through bafflegab on mental health woes

Posted on February 20, 2009 in Child & Family Debates, Governance Debates, Health Debates

TheStar.com – Canada – Busting through bafflegab on mental health woes
February 20, 2009.   Jim Coyle

It usually takes a machete to hack through the thicket of acronyms and bafflegab when bureaucrats come calling at Ontario Legislature committees.

Such was the case this week when senior officials of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care were summoned before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts to explain some of the shortcomings in community mental-health service identified in this year’s report by the auditor general.

To kick things off, a deputy minister spoke numbingly (in the manner of the species) about the merits of LHINs and MHSIO and NP-led clinics and of the many improvements under way.

Which led MPPs on the panel to take turns asking essentially the same question, one best put by PC member Ernie Hardeman.

If everyone’s doing such a wonderful job, he wanted to know, why is it “nobody’s getting any service?”

Committees are the largely ignored backwaters of the parliamentary process. Paradoxically, they are also where the most information about issues is often assembled and the greatest understanding can be achieved.

Every now and then, the tinder-dry language of the wonkish can even give way to flesh and blood and to prescriptions that seem, with a bit of will, actually doable.

On the subject of mental health, it was soon obvious all MPPs had known the anguish – and frustration – of constituents ground down by inability to get help for loved ones.

“I can tell you – and I’m sure all the other members here would agree – that they have people coming into their offices on a daily basis, family members, saying, `I have a very ill family member and I can’t get any treatment for them,'” said PC MPP Christine Elliott.

The costs of the failure are both economic and human.

Liberal Liz Sandals said she’d been able to document $1 million – “and that was just what we could count” – for the treatment of one man with schizophrenia who had been in and out of jails and psychiatric hospitals.

Elliott noted news stories in the papers that very day of a mentally ill man found dead alone in his apartment and the court appearance of a man “alleged to have pushed those boys off the subway platform.”

Which made the attendance of Dr. Robert Cushman such a welcome addition to proceedings.

Cushman is chief executive officer of the Champlain Local Health Integration Network up Ottawa way, who mercifully rescued the conversation from the bog of ministry-speak and framed it in terms most laymen could understand.

He identified a few projects not just “shovel-ready,” as the current buzz-phrase goes, but long overdue.

“You’ve touched on probably the weakness of the health-care system in Ontario today, and that is the transitions. Transitions of patients – it doesn’t matter whether it’s diabetes or schizophrenia. We have a 400 highway series with poor bridges, basically. We do very poorly with the transitions.”

Marion Wright, of the Canadian Mental Health Association, bought the notion and the infrastructure metaphor. Investments “haven’t been anywhere near adequate to address the emerging needs,” she said. Two areas need attention. First, case-management services. Second, safe, affordable, supported housing.

Cushman said that if he had one wish, in fact, that would be it. “If you asked me what health care in Ontario needs today, I would tell you that the answer is affordable and supportive housing, not MRIs and hospitals.

“I would hope that there will be some investment in affordable housing, as well as bridges and 400-series highways.”

Maybe not the “big idea” the premier’s been scanning the heavens trying to find. But good enough to keep him busy until his muse speaks.


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