TORONTO – On Monday, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) released Canada’s first-ever national strategy to improve mental health for all Canadians.
Five years in the making, the strategy ‘Changing directions, changing lives’ is a blueprint to promote better mental health, prevent mental illness and ensure that services and support are there for people who need them. With more than 100 recommendations, the strategy calls for a reconfiguration of health care services so patients have better access to mental health professionals, community support, better funding and appropriate medication.
The strategy also emphasizes recovery from mental illness and urges for more prevention, especially when dealing with young people.
According to the strategy, mental health issues costs the Canadian economy over $50 billion a year in lost productivity and health care costs. Over the next 30 years, cumulative costs are expected to exceed $2.3 trillion.
MHCC recommends the proportion of health spending devoted to mental health increase from seven to nine per cent over 10 years, which works out to approximately $4 billion.
Lack of funding, research and services
“People with untreated mental health problems are among the heaviest users of our health care system,” says Gordon Floyd, president and CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, an organization that represents and supports the providers of child and youth mental health treatment services throughout Ontario. “Not properly identifying and treating these mental health problems costs us far more than identifying these problems and treating them early.”
A recent report in the U.S. estimated that the lifetime economic cost of childhood mental health problems and illnesses was $2.1 trillion, which with our smaller population would roughly translate to $200 billion in Canada.
CMHO says most mental health problems emerge in childhood or adolescence. Half of all people who suffer from depression, for instance, are first affected before their 20th birthday.
Anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are all examples of mental illnesses and if left untreated can lead to conflicts in family and school, drug abuse, violence and even suicide.
“The significant funding that the federal government provides to the provinces for the delivery of health care gives them the power to require that mental health services be improved,” says Floyd. “I think that it’s a power that they should be using, but currently are not.”
Sarah Cannon, the executive director of Parents for Children’s Mental Health-a provincial, non-profit organization that represents the voice of families in child and youth mental health- says not only does the government need to commit to sustainable funding, but it must commit to an integrated and collaborative approach across sectors and ministries from all levels of government.
At the age of five, Cannon’s eldest daughter Emily was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Shortly after, Cannon lost her husband to bipolar disorder when he took his life in their family home.
“The system is so fragmented and soiled that really it has resulted in a non-system of care,” she says. “So often, we have nowhere to turn for guidance and families, children and youth are left to languish. If we are lucky enough to discover a resource, more often than not it is underfunded meaning months and months of wait lists.”
Cannon says such lack of research and funding becomes a barrier when it comes to finding services and support for children with mental health illnesses.
Once referred to as manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder involves severe mood swings. In children, the disorder presents itself differently than in adults with the fluctuations in mood being often times very rapid.
“She would often have breakdowns that didn’t seem to be brought on by anything and would last hours and completely wipe her out physically and emotionally,” says Cannon.
As a child, Cannon says Emily had trouble learning, communicating and interacting on many different levels.
“She seemed to be so uncomfortable in her own skin, like being her was literally painful,” says Cannon. “She seemed tormented and confused and so preoccupied by her discomfort that it was hard for her to connect in ways that are expected or socially normal.”
Cannon says it was difficult to find appropriate resources and support for her daughter in school and the community.
“I ended up having to get her medical treatment outside of my local area because there were none available to me in my home area,” says Cannon.
“I also went back to school so that I could provide her with programming myself as I felt I could not afford to sit on a wait list while she got worse. I had to leave a job because taking care of her was a full-time job. Daycares, babysitters, etc just weren’t equipped to deal with her unique needs.”
Cannon says the most common misconception when it comes to children with mental health illnesses is that these kids are “bad kids with bad behaviours and they are in control of what they are doing, that they choose to act out or have outbursts or be ‘difficult’ or anxious, that they are attention seeking.”
“Mental illness is the one thing that does not discriminate and no matter what your level of education, your rate of pay, your social standing, it can very easily move into your home.”
Changing the view
Most experts agree that the largest barrier to exist when it comes to mental health issues in general is stigma-the dirty word of mental health.
“Often times the media portrayal of mental illness does not depict the truth and builds on the stigma,” says Cannon. “In regular news reports, we always hear over and over again about people with mental illnesses who have committed heinous crimes. There is no balance in reporting the people who have done amazing things who also have a diagnosis of mental illness-it is a completely imbalanced picture that we send to people every day.”
Cannon says the stigma severely affects those with a mental health illness.
“My daughter deals with things on such an emotional level, and she has been deeply hurt by people and their actions time and time again,” she says.
“Yet she chooses to look at people and see their positive, to believe that people will one day understand her and forgive her for being different.”
As a parent, Cannon says the lack of open conversation around mental health illnesses is a constant challenge when it comes to raising her daughter.
“You see them struggle to fight these faceless demons they live with daily and feel helpless, not knowing how to effectively help them in their war or alleviate their pain,” she says. “Our parenting is so often being called into question that there are many days you yourself begin to question if everything your child is going through is indeed somehow your fault, and you battle with guilt daily, trying to determine if what you are doing is right. Because people don’t very often talk about it, you often don’t know that many others are struggling just like you, feeling what you feel, which just magnifies the feelings that you are the only one who has somehow managed to mess your kid up so badly.”
Floyd says that as a society, we have turned a blind eye to those with mental health needs.
“The time is right to really change and make a difference and significantly improve the mental health system for everyone who needs it,” he says.