Mental health matters to young Ontarians. Here's what it could mean at the ballot box
Young voters account for over 30% of Ontario electorate
Meshall Awan has seen first-hand how people reaching out for mental health support often don't get the help they need.
Awan, 22, was completing a degree in social work when she noticed providers sometimes didn't have the capacity to help and had to turn people away.
Since then, Awan has become an organizer and spokesperson for Future Majority, a non-partisan non-profit group whose goal is to "amplify the concerns of young Canadians," according to its website.
Awan says it's clear from focus groups the organization has held with undecided voters aged 18 to 35 in the Greater Toronto Area, mental health support is an underlying theme in virtually all of the struggles they face.
"There needs to be action before it worsens even more than it already has," Awan told CBC News.
Young voters account for over 30 per cent of the Ontario electorate and also make up sizeable proportions of key swing ridings in places like Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough, the organization says. As a result, Awan says mental health could well be a decisive ballot box issue in the upcoming provincial election, with young people wielding considerable voting power.
"Not only do we hold more votes than any other age group, but we are also highly concentrated in ridings where the election will be won or lost," Awan said.
Awan says Future Majority wants to empower young people to use their votes to show party leaders how important issues like mental health support are to them, especially in light of soaring real estate prices, a housing crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a January poll from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Ontario, people under the age of 35 and children under the age of 18 were found to be among the most vulnerable to worsening mental health during the pandemic.
CMHA Ontario also says wait times for services have only gotten longer since the pandemic begun. Average wait times across the province for children and youth are 67 days for counselling and therapy and 92 days for intensive treatment, according to their poll.
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Advocates say because youth have been at the forefront of dispelling stigma and pushing for reform, the call for a boosted mental health sector may be taken more seriously by parties and voters alike.
"I've been in the mental health sector for a long time, and this is a time like no other," said CMHA Ontario CEO Camille Quenneville.
"[Young people are] going to drive a much better future as it relates to our mental health and addiction system, because they're going to demand that services be available and that the capacity is consistent with the need."
Awan says young people are hoping for plans from the political parties that will lead to more timely, culturally-informed, and affordable mental health care.
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These desires largely overlap with what post-secondary students have been advocating for years prior to the pandemic, according to the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFSO). The group represents over 350,000 full-time and part-time students in Ontario student unions, according to its website.
That's because having access to timely and quality mental health care helps students pursue higher education and enter the job market,.says Camille Duhaime, the CFSO treasurer and a recent graduate.
"Overall, you can't really have good mental health when you have to decide between paying rent, tuition and food," said Duhaime.
Duhaime says if the government focused on alleviating problems in other areas of young peoples' lives, such as debt relief and overall health-care access, mental health will improve.
"That's something we'd really like to continue seeing by different political parties: just a little bit more acknowledgement about how supporting students with affordability could help indirectly with mental health."
What the parties are offering
In April's pre-election budget, Doug Ford's PCs said they'll put an additional $204 million to build on their 2020 Roadmap to Wellness mental health and addictions strategy. That plan has a budget of $3.8 billion over 10 years to expand and improve mental health care quality and access — which includes creating a centralized point of oversight for the sector, The Mental Health and Addictions Centre of Excellence.
The Ontario Liberal Party says it'll increase mental health funding by $3 billion to cut wait times, train and hire 3,000 new mental health and addictions workers — 1,000 of which will be dedicated to working with at-risk youth, build 15,000 supportive homes for mental health and addictions, expand public mental health and addiction care, expand mental health care to health professionals, and have mental health responders available at 911 and in emergency rooms.
The NDP says it will bring mental health care under OHIP, invest $130 million to reduce the wait list for children's mental health to 30 days, make 30,000 supportive housing units for those with mental health and addiction challenges and boost front-line mental health and addiction agency funding by eight per cent.
The New Democrats also say they will hire 40 mental health practitioners for northern Ontario and make culturally-informed mental health care available for students, Indigenous, Black and French-speaking people.
The Green Party's mental health plan includes spending over $6.6 billion over four years for publicly funded mental health and addiction services, expanded access under OHIP, and a base budget increase of eight per cent to the community mental health sector.
Other details include reducing wait times for child mental health supports to less than 30 days, decriminalizing drug use, supporting Indigenous-led clinics and programs, building 60,000 permanent supportive housing spaces, more youth wellness and community centres, and the creation of a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
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Quenneville says while each party has shown initiative in tackling the problem, they could all do more to show specifics on how their plans would work.
"They've committed large sums of money. What's missing is a lot of specificity around how those dollars will be spent," said Quenneville.
No matter the outcome of the election, Awan says young people need to remember voting is one of the most important ways they can make their voices heard.
"We really need to … have hope for the future that we're going to be living in, and not this constant existentialism and dread about what's going on in the world."