Canadians urged to support mental health plan

Canadians are being encouraged to get behind the landmark mental health strategy that was released Tuesday by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
David Goldbloom, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said Canadians shouldn't waste the opportunity to help reform the mental health system when a landmark strategy was launched Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canadians shouldn't waste the opportunity now before them to help improve the mental health system, the chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada said Tuesday as its landmark strategy was officially launched.

The commission's report, Changing Directions, Changing Lives, contains 109 priorities and recommendations for action and is being called a blueprint for change. It was obtained in advance by media outlets and its details publicized on Monday.

Mental health advocates, Parliamentarians, including Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, and members of the commission celebrated its official release at an event in Ottawa on Tuesday and called for its recommendations to be implemented.

"This is a time of great opportunity for mental health in Canada. With governments, corporations, communities, families and individuals expressing growing interest in mental health, we must not squander the best chance we've ever had to make the biggest improvements in our history," Dr. David Goodbloom, the newly appointed chair of the commission, said. "We owe it to all Canadians to act and to act immediately."

The report is one of the signature initiatives that the Mental Health Commission of Canada has been working on since it was created in 2007 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.

It has a 10-year mandate and its establishment was borne out of a major report from a Senate committee in 2006 on mental health.

The strategy's recommendations, divided into six strategy areas, are aimed at governments, the private sector, health professionals, social services providers, and all Canadians. It addresses all age groups and Canada's diverse population, including new Canadians and First Nations communities.

It wants recovery to be put at the heart of mental health reform so that the consequences of mental illness can be minimized, and it also calls for timely access to the right combination of treatments, services and support.

"We expect this for people confronting heart disease or cancer. Why should we expect anything less for people living with mental health problems and illnesses?" said Goldbloom.

More health professionals, better access to medicines, and peer-support programs are needed but enhanced social and community services, such as housing, are also required, he said.

The report says that the current mental health system is fractured and chronically underfunded and the commission wants to see at least $3 to $4 billion invested in it over the next decade.

Every Canadian has a role to play

But Goldbloom said in addition to more investment, existing resources also need to be used more efficiently.

Goldbloom said that while progress has been made and Canadians are talking more openly about mental health problems, there is still a long way to go, and it's not just up to the government to change the way mental illness is treated.

"While the federal government has asked us to create this strategy, this plan is far more than just government. Thousands of Canadians have already played a role in creating this strategy and every Canadian has a role to play in making it work," he said.

Momentum has been building in recent years, and the commission says collaboration, leadership and support from all Canadians is needed to keep it going.

An estimated one in five Canadians will be affected by a mental health problem or illness, which means almost every Canadian will be touched by it either themselves or through someone they know, and mental illness is estimated to cost the economy $51 billion annually.

"If there is one thing we need Canadians to hear today it's this call for action. We all have a stake in this," said Louise Bradley, CEO of the commission.

She said the commission will be reaching out to governments, national organizations, and community groups and encouraging Canadians and decision-makers to implement the plan.

Louise Bradley, CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, left, and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, listen to remarks from speakers at an event in Ottawa to launch the commission's national mental health strategy. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was also at the launch and called Canada's first mental health strategy a "milestone."

Aglukkaq said she hopes the strategy will "further energize the national dialogue about the importance of mental health" and said the report represents a call for all levels of government, the private sector, and volunteers to keep working to change the system to meet the needs of vulnerable citizens.

"No single person, group or government will succeed on its own," she said.

Now with the release of the report there is pressure on Ottawa to dedicate more funding to the mental health commission to follow through on its report. The government has also been criticized in recent weeks because budget cuts at the Department of National Defence are trickling down to mental health programs for veterans.Aglukkaq announces new research funds

Aglukkaq said her government has made significant investments in mental health and suicide prevention since it took power in 2006 and that the investments "are worth every dime."

She also announced during her speech that the federal government is issuing a new call for research proposals on the issue of homelessness and mental illness. The government is committing about $800,000 for new research projects.

But when asked after her speech whether the government will listen to the call for billions more dollars to be invested in mental health, Aglukkaq said the federal government is committed to providing stable, long-term funding to the provinces to deliver health care and that its investments in research parallel the commission's work.

"It's not going to be one government to address this strategy, it's going to involve all partners," the health minister said. 

Goldbloom's predecessor, retired Senator Michael Kirby, was more blunt about whether the primary responsibility for implementing the report falls to the federal or provincial governments.

"The strategy outlines a variety of actions that are needed, which ones the individual provinces will pick up and decide to act on will vary. It depends, for instance, in particular on what services they now have available – the gaps in some provinces are totally different from the gaps in others," he said at the event. "So in my view there is absolutely not a role for the federal government on the implementation side because it's an area of provincial responsibility."

During his remarks, however, he said federal and provincial governments must make mental health a priority after decades of keeping it in the shadows.

"We simply cannot allow the current situation to continue," he said. The challenge that lies ahead now that the report is done, is getting decision-makers in the private and public sectors to act on it, he said.

"To sell it, to get it adopted, is going to require a very strong marketing effort," he said.