Dawn Muenchrath/the Gauntlet

Stigmatizing the blues

The sad state of mental health care in Canada

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Canadian mental health care is abysmal. On May 8, 2012, Canada’s first-ever national mental health strategy was released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada after five years of research, including consultations with thousands of people. This is a good first step, although long overdue, but Canadians have yet to see the benefits of its release.

Only seven per cent of Canada’s health budget is allocated to mental health, which is not nearly enough for a set of illnesses that either directly or indirectly affect every Canadian. This is fewer than most OECD countries — New Zealand spends 10 per cent of its health funds on mental health and Australia recently added $3.8 billion to its mental health fund. Before the strategy was released, Canada was, embarrassingly, the only G8 country without a national mental health strategy, and the current strategy continues to lag far behind other national mental health strategies. 

The strategy suggests the federal and provincial governments increase their mental health spending to nine per cent of their overall health spending. The report also suggests a reconfiguration of mental health care services and emphasizes recovery strategies. However, this is not enough, especially considering Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s previous actions that adversely affect the mentally ill, including his tough-on-crime strategy that essentially further institutionalizes the mentally ill. 

Loss of productivity due to mental illnesses was worth $51 million in 2011, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. A national mental health strategy could reduce this economic gap. Currently 80–90 per cent of those with a serious mental illness are unable to work, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, but through proper treatment they will be able to enter the work force. Even if the Harper government disregards the mental well being of its citizens, as it clearly has so far, the economic impact of mental illness alone makes mental-health coverage worth it.

Currently, pharmaceutical drug pushing has been the primary treatment. However, drugs should complement or be secondary to therapy in order to give patients long-term coping strategies. 

Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of deaths among 15–24 year olds, the age of most university undergraduates, making it the second leading cause of death after motor vehicle accidents. Why, then, is there not more being done about this tragic epidemic? 

The University of Calgary Wellness Centre works on a brief-counselling model, meaning that students have 10 free therapy sessions during their undergraduate degree. Given the severity and range of mental illnesses, this model is not enough to support those who need help. Although there are few means of financial support, students simply can’t afford therapy sessions. 

Canadians, and especially students, should never have to choose between drugs and therapy. Both should be offered universally — the benefit to the general well being of Canadians and to the economy is incontrovertible. 

The federal and provincial governments need to start showing they care about something that at least 20 per cent of Canadians experience in their lifetime. 

Until the government starts taking action, an inherent mental health stigma will continue to exist in Canadian society. What we can do as concerned citizens can only go so far, however, that doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for change. By creating discourse, Canadians can begin to tackle stigma and continue down a path of acceptance and proper mental health care. The mental health strategy outlines specific goals that are long overdue, but it lacks concrete steps of how to achieve them and is not nearly enough to give Canadians the resources they need. 

Only one in five Canadian youth who experience a mental illness receives help — more services need to be available. Universal health care makes Canadians proud of their nationality, however, stopping at mental health is an embarrassing black mark and a stigmatizing double standard that can no longer be ignored.