Feds urged to make mental health top priority in health accord negotiations

The Canadian Press
October 31, 2016
By The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – The Trudeau government is being urged to make mental health a top priority as it negotiates a new health accord with the provinces and territories.

Dr. Catherine Zahn, president of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says mental illness afflicts some 6.7 million Canadians – roughly 20 per cent of the population – and costs the economy an estimated $51 billion each year.

That's a bigger burden than is caused by cancer or infectious diseases, and yet Zahn says only about seven per cent of the billions spent on health care in Canada goes to mental illness.

Zahn wants the health accord to explicitly earmark funds for research aimed at determining the biological origins of conditions like addiction, depression, schizophrenia, autism and dementia.

She says it should also commit to national public wait time standards for access to mental health treatments and commit to meaningful reductions in those wait times over the next decade.

As well, Zahn wants federal and provincial governments to commit to improving access to "structured psychotherapy" – which has proven effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression – and to list it as a medically necessary, publicly funded service within "a reasonable time frame."

"We're asking for a concrete, rational and effective federal investment directed toward improving the mental health of individuals and the mental health of our population," she says in the text of the speech, provided to The Canadian Press.

"Through a health accord, our political leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring justice to those who live with mental illness."

In negotiations on the accord, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has put $3 billion over four years on the table, earmarked for improving access to home care. She has said she's willing to consider more money for other priorities, including mental health, but only if the provinces agree to spend the money on the agreed-upon priorities.

In their platform for last year's election, the Liberals promised to "make high-quality mental health services more available to Canadians who need them, including our veterans and first responders." Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose mother has openly recounted her own battles with mental illness, has made it something of a personal priority.

Zahn says mental health is "central to all health," and yet Canada's publicly funded health care system does not cover effective interventions for mental disorders.

"Mental health has been left out of the publicly insured framework not because of evidence but because of historic decisions fuelled by misinformation, fear and prejudice and by squabbles over jurisdiction," she says, tracing the origin of the problem back to days when mentally ill people were institutionalized in provincially run asylums.

That has resulted in a situation where there's a "stark justice gap" between those suffering physical ailments and those with mental illnesses, creating what Zahn calls "an egregious inequity that must be addressed."

She gives the example of two colleagues, one of whom had a grandchild diagnosed with diabetes, the other of whom had a child who was depressed and considering suicide. The first child was swiftly "enveloped by a team of experts" at Toronto's Sick Kids hospital; the parents of the second child were given "a yellow sticky note with the names of a few places they might try for help."

"Both children had life-threatening conditions; one had immediate access to excellent, comprehensive, patient and family-centred care, the other simply did not," Zahn says.

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