The ballots are counted. Is it a new day for mental health in Canada?
By Lori Spadorcia, Vice President, Communications and Partnerships at CAMH
After a lengthy federal election campaign, change is in the air this week as the Trudeau government begins its tenure.Despite its importance to the lives of Canadians, healthcare did not consume much space on the airwaves during the campaign. As Andre Picard wrote here, while a source of national pride – it’s not a favoured policy discussion for politicians during campaigns.
The discourse on mental health has grown prominently over the last decade. What was once a taboo issue has now turned into something you hear about every day. People with lived experience telling their personal stories, increased philanthropic activity and corporate Canada ringing the bell on workplace mental health has led to a serious call to action. Governments at all levels are responding with pronouncements and strategies but transformative public investments have yet to follow. At the same time, a focus on crime and punishment over the last decade and a series of high profile violent events have led to a dialogue that increasingly and wrongly criminalizes mental illness and addiction.
The new government holds hope for some much needed change with a few key pronouncements that could steer us in the right direction. The first is a commitment to meet with the Premiers and develop a new health accord. If our leaders are serious about a move from strategy to action, the Prime Minister and Premiers should forge a new way forward for investment in health and in mental health. Building on the wait times strategy of a decade ago, they could invest in a first-ever mental health wait times strategy so that we can begin to collect and measure accurate data and ensure access to high quality mental health care is available to Canadians no matter where they live in this country.
Another key area of action to improve mental health is housing. In their election platform, the Liberals promised a new investment in housing. This is critical for lifting Canadians out of poverty and providing dignified and safe homes for families. Building on the successful Housing First model, the new government should work with the provinces to eliminate homelessness and ensure people with mental illness have affordable and supportive housing – a critical part of their recovery.
The intersection between criminal justice and mental health needs a close look. Increased numbers of mentally ill people in our prisons, changes to the Not Criminally Responsible legislation emphasizing punishment versus care, and a “war on drugs” approach to addiction have created a national psyche that associates mental illness and addiction with crime and unfortunately has diverted people who need care to the justice system. A new direction is needed. Here, a serious investment in identification, early intervention and treatment of mental illness will help prevent people from falling through the cracks into the justice system. Well-established court diversion programs should be enhanced most urgently for youth so that opportunities for care and supports trump jail time and criminal records. And, a national strategy on addictions emphasizing a public health approach of education, prevention, treatment and recovery is long overdue.
Mental health has waited long enough. It’s time to build on the momentum and put words into action. For an election that was seemingly about Canadian values I would count access to mental health support and diversion from criminal justice as Canadian as it gets.