Opening doors on mental health

Posted on July 13, 2009 in Governance Debates, Health Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Editorial – Opening doors on mental health
July 13, 2009

Mental illness and addictions often go hand in hand. Yet addicts are routinely told they must get clean before they can access mental health services, and those suffering from serious mental illness are often turned away from addiction programs.

Unfortunately, this is just one example of our dysfunctional health system, which provincial Health Minister David Caplan says is organized for “the convenience of providers,” not those in need.

It is good news, then, that the province is developing a strategy to transform how we treat mental illness and addiction. A discussion paper, written by experts brought together to advise the government, will be formally released at a summit in Toronto tomorrow.

The title, Every Door is the Right Door, is an important recognition that people with a mental illness do not often walk into a psychiatrist’s office, sit on the couch and ask for help. Two in three Canadians who need mental health services do not get them.

To change this, mental health and addiction services must be brought out of the shadows, destigmatized and treated as part of our health-care system, just as programs for diabetes or cancer are.

The paper notes that right now these services are “the distant cousins of the health-care system.” They are the poor cousins, too.

Canadian investment in mental health and addiction lags behind other developed countries. And within Canada, Ontario’s per-capita spending falls below the national average.

Given this, it is disappointing that Caplan’s letter accompanying the paper states: “I believe that we can work with our existing resources to make positive change.”

The overarching goal in all this, Caplan says, is to create a proactive system that improves lives and outcomes through early intervention.

How does that square with waiting lists? “There are resources aplenty to meet many of those needs,” he insists.

Perhaps some needs can be met through restructuring. But advocates attending tomorrow’s summit will certainly challenge Caplan on this point. After all, money spent to prevent and treat mental health and addictions is not being thrown out the window. It is an investment recouped many times over.

It has been estimated that for every $1 spent on mental health and addictions, it saves $7 in health costs and $30 in lost productivity and social costs. Treating people inadequately, as we do now, costs Ontario a staggering $39 billion a year.

That is the cost to us, as taxpayers.

There is also the immeasurable cost in suffering for people with mental illness and addictions, and their families, as they try to survive, improve and build a life. The discussion paper is clear about what they need: “A home, a job, a friend.”

In a province as great as ours, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.


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