Alzheimer's disease

Carolyn Poirier and her sister Claire have looked after their mother, Jane, centre, at home since she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease nearly seven years ago. (Courtesy Carolyn Poirier)

Many people caring for a chronically ill family member say they're very stressed, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It's calling for better access to mental health treatment as a top priority.

Thursday's interim report from the commission red flags the nearly 17 per cent of the 5.5 million Canadian caregivers aged 15 and over as a "substantial proportion" coping with very difficult levels of caregiver stress.

"We need to support caregivers' health," Kimberley McEwan of the Centre for Applied Research and Mental Health, at Simon Fraser University, one of the authors of the report, said in an interview. "We know caregivers who are under a lot of stress will ultimately develop mental health and potentially physical health problems as well."

As the population ages, the number of people with dementia and other chronic illnesses will rise, boosting the need for family care, the authors said.

The group looked at national 13 indicators to see how well the health system responds to mental health needs and what collectively needs to be done.

Commission members said they want mental health prioritized among all health spending so it's given the same calibre as wait times for cancer treatment or hip replacement.

For recovery to happen, the mental health system needs to be sensitive to the needs of the family as whole, said Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada.

"Listen to the family member's needs," Summerville urged. "They may have to take time off of work, they have to take money out of the budget to help the one they're caring for, there's fatigue that perhaps comes along with it," Summerville said. 

Carolyn Poirier of Toronto was 19 when her mother, Jane, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. In the seven years since, taking care of her mother, along with her sister and dad, has required a lot of sacrifices.

"I have had to give up a number of career opportunities," and chances to travel," Poirier said. Despite her love for the mother, she said the situation creates anxiety, resentment and sometimes anger.

Proposed solutions included:

  • Tax credits for family caregivers.
  • Respite care.
  • More flexible work hours.
  • Better access to support groups.

Other red indicators of "significant concern" in the report were:

  • Intentional self-harm among post-secondary students.
  • Recovery or self-rated mental health among people with common mental health conditions. About a third of Canadians with mental health conditions reported very positive mental health compared with 72 per cent without a mental disorder.
  • In 2011, almost 11 out of every 100,000 people — or 3,728 Canadians — killed themselves. Coupled with the high rate of suicide among Canadian males relative to females (16.3 per 100,000 versus 5.4/100,000) was a cause for concern.​

Men are less likely than women to identify when they have a significant mental health problem and are also less likely to seek treatment.

The commission noted Canada lacks a suicide prevention strategy.  When such programs were started in the UK, their value was proven.

Yellow indicators included stress at workunmet need for mental health care among people with mental disorders and how Canada Pension Plan disability benefits for mental health reasons has steadily increased. These now represents 30 per cent of claims.

The rise in claims could be seen in both a negative or positive light. Either mental health disorders are increasing or the disorders are more recognized as a legitimate disability. 

Sense of belonging among immigrants was rated green. 

The Mental Health Commission of Canada was formed in 2007 with a 10-year mandate to improve the mental health system and change attitude and behaviours around mental health issues. The organization is funded by Health Canada and operates at arm's length from the government.

Caregivers feeling serious stress: report by TheCanadianPress