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The Missing and Mental Illness: “Critical work still needs to be done”

Our documentary “Finding Emma” sparked a lot of comment and reaction about the missing, the homeless and mental illness. We asked, Louise Bradley, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, for her perspective.

The CBC’s documentary, Finding Emma, is based on the very personal story of one family. In a courageous effort to find her missing daughter, Shelly Fillipoff offers Canadians a glimpse into her tireless struggle, and her concerns surrounding her daughter’s mental health. As Emma’s family wait and hope – along with the families of the 60,000 other missing persons in Canada, let their vigil remind all Canadians of the critical work that still needs to be done around mental illness.

Seeing as one in five Canadians will be affected by a mental problem or illness in any given year, not talking about the issue is simply not an option. In fact, if we include the effect on families and caregivers, mental illness has an impact on almost every person in our country – and it is a subject that can no longer be sidelined.

At the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) we strive to put forward bold and forward-thinking solutions to the systemic societal challenges that persist around mental illness. While these solutions are not a one-size-fits-all approach, they all derive from Changing Directions, Changing Lives, the Mental Health Strategy for Canada. Comprised of dozens of strategic recommendations, the Strategy offers Canada a blueprint for renovating our mental health care system. The good news is that there is every reason to believe that we are moving forward on a positive path.

Mental health issues do not discriminate. They strike men and women, children, seniors, and adults of all ethnic backgrounds in the prime of their working lives. At the MHCC, promoting education to erase misperceptions and rectify stigmatizing attitudes is chief among our goals. Central to these efforts is our work around the creation of a diverse set of anti-stigma programs.

Research has shown that by targeting our efforts we can maximize the resonance of our message. For that reason, our Opening Minds initiative aims to change the attitudes and behaviours of youth, the media, health care providers and in the workplace.

Addressing stigma also helps ensure that people will not forgo the help they need for fear of judgment. The creation of Mental Health First Aid Canada (MHFA) is intended to improve access to that help. MHFA is designed to teach people how to recognize, and extend support to, peers, colleagues or loved ones who may be experiencing a mental health problem, or show signs of full-blown crisis. To date, more than 100,000 Canadians have taken this critical training, and the cumulative effect of their knowledge is being felt in communities across the country.

For some individuals, more intensive intervention is required. And for the most seriously mentally ill, homelessness is often a reality. To cope with this pervasive challenge, the MHCC conducted At Home/Chez Soi, a research project focused on the Housing First approach. The largest study of its kind in the world, At Home gave us a wealth of evidence to support the idea that giving homeless individuals with a mental illness housing first, followed by appropriate treatments and supports, is an effective and cost-efficient solution to a problem faced by communities across the country.

And while these initiatives are offering help and hope, we can’t ignore the sad reality that each year in Canada some 3,900 people die by suicide. In a bid to spark a nation-wide dialogue on the subject – with the intention of gathering information and best-practices from across the country – the MHCC has challenged all 308 federally elected members of Parliament to host a community discussion on suicide prevention. Given the name #308 Conversations, these critical sessions will help to inform a broader national approach to suicide prevention.

At the MHCC, our efforts are underpinned by the fundamental understanding that recovery from a mental illness is possible, and that the road to recovery is a deeply personal one. The idea of recovery centres on acknowledging the value of self-determination, and the importance of being engaged in ones’ own journey to wellness – and the Mental Health Strategy for Canada is built on this foundational idea.

Whether it be through ameliorated training for our police and first-responders, access to safe and stable housing, or opening the door on difficult conversations about suicide prevention, the MHCC offers hopeful solutions that point to recovery.

Every Canadian has an opportunity to become empowered and potentially help others. If you would like to learn more, sign the Recovery Declaration, encourage your MP to host a conversation on suicide prevention, or become trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Every small effort is a step in the right direction.