Opinion

New report offers hope, but we still have to admit we have a problem with mental health care in Manitoba

Manitoba has a problem. For some of us reading a new report on mental health care in the province, it may feel a little like seeing our dirty laundry laid out on the front porch, and sometimes it may hurt.

Mental health, addictions treatment a 'gaping hole' in health-care system, says Klinic executive director

The mental health strategy unveiled by the provincial government this week offers excellent potential for significant reform in mental health care in Manitoba, says Klinic executive director Nicole Chammartin. But to fix the province's problems with mental health treatment, we first have to admit we have a problem, she says. (Peerayot/Shutterstock)

Manitoba has a problem.

For some of us reading a new report on mental health care in the province, it may feel a little like seeing our dirty laundry laid out on the front porch, and sometimes it may hurt.

Clocking in at 257 pages, the Virgo report is unlikely to be read by most Manitobans, but here is why you might want to pay attention.

The report — a lengthy review into the Manitoba mental health and addictions system, authored by Virgo Planning and Evaluation Consultants of Toronto and just released by the Manitoba government this week — does a reasonable job in at least seeing our pain, and articulating it back to us in a way that at times feels almost personal.

If we close our eyes and squint a little, perhaps we will not notice the giant crack that exists in our crown jewel, and that gaping hole is mental health.- Nicole Chammartin

Is it possible? Did they really get us? Could it really be happening?

As someone who has spent most of my career working in mental health and addictions in one way or another, and currently works as the executive director of Klinic Community Health and the Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC), both of which provide services in these areas, I know that many like me are caught somewhere between holding our breath and quiet hope.

I believe that at the end of the day we are resilient and hopeful for a better place, a better world for ourselves, the people we love, our neighbours and the ones who come after us. I think as Canadians we tend to see this belief crystalized in our universal health-care system, that epitome of who we are.

If we close our eyes and squint a little, perhaps we will not notice the giant crack that exists in our crown jewel, and that gaping hole is mental health.

Leading 'race to the bottom'

Canada has underspent on mental health as a country for decades, consistently falling behind other developed nations — in fact, on average a full five per cent behind the recommended minimum of 12 per cent of health-care spending suggested by the World Health Organization.

In Manitoba we have consistently led the race to the bottom, which is confirmed in the Virgo report to be in the area of five per cent of overall health spending — less than half the recommended minimum.

So it's not surprising that though the Virgo report says it is not all about dollars and cents, a core recommendation in the report is to work toward catching up:

"While an infusion of funding alone will not 'fix the system,' some investments will be needed. While we are aware of the need for fiscal restraint in the Manitoba context ... we highlight the strong business case for these additional investments, the size of the funding gap, and the length of time the disparity between need and capacity has continued."

The report goes on to recommend bringing the level of investment in mental health care to roughly on par with other Canadian jurisdictions.

Dr. Brian Rush presents the Virgo report to media on May 14. The report 'makes it painfully obvious what years of underfunding and fragmentation of the mental health system have done,' says Nicole Chammartin. (Warren Kay/CBC)

As a person who has been in many rooms making this case over the last decade, both in Manitoba and across Canada, I know that unless we acknowledge that at its core we have a system that simply has not been given what it requires to survive, let alone thrive, then recovery will be a long way off.

The reality is that mental health is underfunded largely due to the history of stigma and second-class status in our health-care system.

'Immense opportunity' for reform

Perhaps this can finally be our moment, our time to see the immense opportunity that comes with creating a system that supports our whole population, embraces the values of universality, and does not let our history of stigma continue to drive our decisions today.

This is a mental health strategy that I believe has excellent potential for a strong future for Manitobans, if we are bold and committed to working together and stepping up.- Nicole Chammartin

The Virgo report makes it painfully obvious what years of underfunding and fragmentation of the mental health system have done. Organizations struggling to meet an ocean of demands have created more and more access points that lead to nowhere.

A key finding in the report, and one highlighted at the report's launch by the author, is that an access point is not helpful when there is no treatment or support door behind it.

The strong commitment in the Virgo report to a population health approach — with significant focus on integration, community-based solutions, prevention, promotion, harm reduction, recovery, cultural support and trauma-informed care — makes me truly hopeful.

This is a mental health strategy that I believe has excellent potential for a strong future for Manitobans, if we are bold and committed to working together and stepping up.

We all benefit from a society that is mentally healthy and, as highlighted in this report, our young people in particular currently face some of the greatest barriers to treatment and support.

I believe that all of the organizations working in mental health and addictions in Manitoba, including my own, have all the best intentions, are staffed by people who come to work every day committed to doing the very best they can do, and who work hard to find creative solutions wherever they can.

I also agree with Virgo that this does not make a mental health and addictions system, and that significant provincial leadership and investment are required if we are ever going to create a truly comprehensive and responsive mental health and addictions system.

So where do we start?

Well, the first step is admitting we have a problem.

About the Author

Nicole Chammartin

Nicole Chammartin is the executive director of Klinic Community Health Centre in Winnipeg and the Sexuality Education Resource Centre. She is the co-chair of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres.