On March 29, Maclean’s hosts “Health Care in Canada: Time to Rebuild Medicare,” a town hall discussion at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton. The conversation on health care, held in conjunction with the Canadian Medical Association and broadcast by CPAC, continues in coming months in Maclean’s and at town halls in Vancouver and Ottawa.
Mental illness, and what passes for Canadian mental health policy, has been called the “orphan of health care,” and perhaps that’s true. It’s also been called an invisible disease, but that’s not really the case. The mentally ill have many faces. They are in our schools, our homes, our emergency wards. They are in our jails, in our graveyards; they are on our Olympic team.
They are people with names. Jack Windeler, a Queen’s University student of great promise, began to miss classes, skip assignments, withdraw from friends. A year ago on March 27, he killed himself in his residence room. He was 18. BobbyLee Worm, a deeply troubled 24-year-old Aboriginal woman from Saskatchewan, has spent some three years locked in solitary confinement in a B.C. prison, counting the bricks of her cell. Speed skater and cyclist Clara Hughes overcame a troubled adolescence to compete for Canada at the 1996 Olympics. Afterwards, she fell into a profound depression, slogging “through quicksand and hopelessness.” She sought help. She fought back to become one of Canada’s greatest athletes, and the kind of role model who can shatter stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental illness.
This, then, is the state of mental health policy in Canada: scattered flashes of brilliance amid quicksand, hopelessness and waste. Canada is the only G7 country without a national mental health strategy, says Louise Bradley, president of the Calgary-based Mental Health Commission of Canada, a four-year-old agency mandated to finally draft a coherent approach to the issue. She blames the shame surrounding mental health issues for the lesser priority and lower funding accorded treatment of psychiatric disorders. Bradley, a nurse and former front-line mental health worker, sees the stigma in the public, but even among health care workers and those with mental illnesses. It’s tragic, she says, since hardly anyone is untouched by the problem. When people discover her job, they always have stories. “Every time it starts out in hushed tones,” she says. “And yet here we are in 2011 still with it shrouded with embarrassment and fear.”
The need is obvious. The annual cost to the economy in lost productivity was pegged at $51 billion in a report last year by researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Some seven million Canadians will experience a mental illness this year, including depression, substance abuse and psychotic episodes. Many go undiagnosed, some suffer silently, others self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. They overwhelm family doctors or jam emergency wards ill-suited to their needs. They face long waits for counselling.
“Access to mental health services overall is pretty poor,” says Steve Lurie, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “In Ontario, basically one in three adults get access. If you’re a child, it’s worse. It’s one in six,” he says. “We wouldn’t accept that for cancer. We wouldn’t accept that for heart [disease] or if you have a broken leg.” Psychiatric care is far more likely to be provided to wealthy adults, says Dr. Michael Rachlis, a Toronto-based health policy consultant. “Children and youth is much harder work,” he says, “and it tends not to pay as well as sitting in your office and seeing people who have less serious problems.”
Many of the needed public services are delivered piecemeal or they fall outside of medicare. Sarah Cannon of St. Catharines, Ont., executive director of Parents for Children’s Mental Health, lost her husband to suicide eight years ago. He suffered from bipolar disorder. Their daughter Emily received a similar diagnosis at age five. Finding quality treatment was a struggle. Emily’s teachers used different treatment strategies from those offered by her community mental health workers. “[There's] a lack of consistency,” she says, “lack of them speaking with each other.” At times, Cannon was spending as much as $800 a month on drugs not covered by Ontario’s health plan. Emily, now 14, is being effectively treated with mood stabilizers, in combination with counselling and occupational therapy. “I want a system that is integrated, that communicates and coordinates,” Cannon says, “that is funded the same way they would fund a system that treats a child with physical health problems.”
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