Canadian attitudes toward mental illness are a cause for concern, the Canadian Medical Association said Monday in releasing its annual report card on health care.

The group's eighth annual report surveyed Canadians to measure attitudes and experiences with the health-care system.

"This year’s report card shines a harsh, and frankly unflattering, light on the attitudes we Canadians have concerning mental health," said the group's president, Dr. Brian Day, in a release.

"In some ways, mental illness is the final frontier of socially-acceptable discrimination."

The survey found:

  • Almost half of Canadians, 46 per cent, think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour.
  • One in four Canadians are fearful of being around those who suffer from serious mental illness.
  • Half of Canadians would tell friends or coworkers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72 per cent for a diagnosis of cancer or 68 per cent for diabetes.
  • Most Canadians, 61 per cent, would be unlikely to go to a family doctor with a mental illness, and 58 per cent would shy away from hiring a lawyer, child-care worker or financial adviser with the illness.

Mental illness takes a toll in terms of sorrow, said Calgary's Fay Herrick, whose 37-year-old son has schizophrenia.

"Being a part of our very poorly informed culture, my sisters and brothers were not really aware of any sort of mental illness," Herrick recalled. "There was a very awkward period of time. It was tough."

Treatment options available

The findings don't surprise Carmen Wyatt of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary, but she said they do trouble her.

"It's just a big, big job to educate people," Wyatt said. "Most mental disorders can be treated, and most people do well with treatment." 

Day said mental health issues cost the economy $51 billion in one year — almost one-third of the total spending on health care in  Canada.

About 60 per cent of Canadians agree the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is underfunded, and 72 per cent agree it should be on a par with funding for diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper named 17 people to a mental health board led by retired Liberal senator Michael Kirby. The Canadian Mental Health Commission is leading a national campaign to erase the stigma of mental illness and acts as a clearinghouse for information on mental disorders.

$130 million funding announcement

On Monday, Health Minister Tony Clement confirmed the federal government's $130 million funding commitment for the commission, extending its mandate to 10 years, to 2017.

Dr. Patrick J. White, head of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, welcomed the announcement, but noted mental health research receives $65 million annually — 25 per cent of the budget given to cancer research.

Doctors, in particular those who work in mental health, have to take a leadership role if attitudes and treatment are going to change, White said.

In his remarks to the CMA, Kirby stressed the stigma of mental illness extends within the medical profession. An American study found half of psychiatrists would rather treat themselves in secret than have mental illness recorded on their own medical charts, he  said.

Perception worse among those without family doctor

In 2008, 66 per cent of Canadians asked ranked the health-care system with an "A" or "B" for overall quality, up from 62 per cent last year, the survey found.

Access to a family doctor remained a concern, Day said. In 2008, about nine per cent of Canadians without a family physician gave the health-care system high marks, compared to 26 per cent of those who do have a family doctor.

While 40 per cent of Canadians gave their provincial government a grade of A or B, a five-point increase over 2007, rankings for the federal government barely increased, from 33 per cent last year to 34 per cent this year.

The CMA is holding its annual meeting in Montreal through Aug. 20.

The annual report card telephone survey by Ipsos-Reid surveyed 1,002 Canadian adults between June 10 and 12, 2008. The sample provides a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 per cent for the overall national findings 19 times out of 20.