$19M in federal funds for mental wellness in black communities desperately needed, experts say

The Liberal budget pledges $19-million to enhance local community support for youth at risk and culturally adapting mental health programs for the black community. Community activists and academics say help is long overdue.

Liberals commit $19M over 5 years to develop culturally focused mental health programs

Delroy Flowers attends art classes regularly at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. For Flowers, 40, the classes are a part of a weekly routine that he looks forward to. He says painting helps him relax and treat his schizophrenia. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC )

Those on the front lines helping people in the black community who are dealing with mental health issues hope new federal funding goes to not only improving access to treatment, but also addressing the stigma that stops people from looking for help in the first place.

Tuesday's federal budget included $19 million over five years to develop research in support of more culturally focused mental health programs in the black community and more support for youth at risk.

Samantha Chhom-Yousuf, a program director at LOFT Community Services, an agency that helps people with mental health challenges, dementia and substance abuse problems, has worked in the Jane-Finch community for a decade.

She sees the barriers to accessing mental health supports as two-fold.

"There isn't a lot of resources for them in that community and we also find that there's a stigma,"  said Chhom-Yousuf, who was part of an assessment of mental health needs in the community in 2013.

Samantha Chhom-Yousuf, a program director at LOFT Community Services in the Jane-Finch community, says there's not just a lack of mental health practitioners, but also a stigma preventing those who need help from seeking treatment. (linkedIn)

"There's not enough practitioners — psychologists, psychiatrics, you name it. There's not a lot of health-care professionals that can offer that support to them," she says, adding marginalized communities find it harder to access such resources.

"They may have to go downtown to [the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health(CAM-H)] or some facility outside the community for service. Accessibility is challenging."

But also, she says, many in the community misunderstand what mental illness is, and that discourages some from seeking help.

"There's a lot of stigma associated with mental health in the community. It may be see as a sign of weakness or you weren't brought up properly,"  says Chhom-Yousuf. "When your community is not supportive that can be really traumatic. So when someone suffers from depression, they'll be like, 'Get over it.'"

She says poverty and violence are also linked to mental illness, along with poor nutrition and a lack of stable housing. Socio-economic indicators such as unemployment, low family income and various forms of discrimination, including
racism, have been identified as risk factors for poor mental health.

'Put you money where your mouth is'

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a psychiatrist and director of health equity at CAMH, says federal funding for preventative mental health programs is sorely needed.

"You've got to put your money where your mouth is. Mental health is the corner stone of social and economic development," McKenzie told CBC Toronto.

"Positive mental health and well-being and resilience and being able to deal with stress. We don't do and think through how you develop positive mental health in black communities."

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, director of health equity at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says little is being done to make sure youth in the black community are mentally resilient. (CAM-H)

McKenzie says it's even more stark for black youth.

"There's very little work going on to build psychologically strong and resilient youth and not surprisingly with socio-economic problems and racism and poorer schools, poorer housing and with poorer job opportunities, we have people under significant stress," he said.

And McKenzie says when a mental illness is diagnosed, the wait times for people in black communities to get treatment are double the provincial average  — 16 months compared with eight.

Delays in treatment affect outcomes, he says, and treatments tend not to take culture and race into account. He says while culturally adapted treatments have been developed, they haven't been deployed.

"Just about everything needs improving," says McKenzie. "There are many straightforward things out there that we just don't do."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.