Why Canada Needs a Federal Minister for Mental Health

21 Oct
Why Canada Needs a Federal Minister for Mental Health

Few if anyone foresaw the Liberal Red tidal wave that washed over the electoral map Monday night in Canada’s 42nd General Election, rewarding Prime Minister Designate Justin Trudeau with a majority of seats in the House of Commons. An election outcome that can only be credited to the “sunny ways” in which the Grits led their 78-day campaign, offering Canadians “real change” through “hope and hard work”… because, as the Liberals suggested, “better is always possible.”

I’m not in the habit of spouting off campaign slogans. But I thought these might serve as an interesting lens through which we can start building the case as to why Canada needs a federal minister responsible for mental health.

Sunny Ways

Every year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health issue or illness. By some estimates, up to 1 in 3 Canadians will be personally affected by a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. And yet, mental illness remains in the shadows, relegated to the darkest corners of our healthcare system.

Canadians with lived experience of mental illness are constantly buffeted by the winds of social stigma, causing far too many to withdraw into themselves for protection.  Only by normalizing conversation around mental illnesses can we shed much needed light on the plight of millions of Canadians, help them peel back their protective layers and give them rays of hope for the future.

A Cabinet-level champion for mental health would send a strong signal that a Trudeau Government stands for fairness and parity in health research, care and treatment… and that Canadians with invisible illnesses are valued, are supported and are considered full-fledged participants in Canadian society.

Hope and Hard Work…for Real Change

Beyond offering hope, much hard work would lie ahead for a Minister responsible for Mental Health. With the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s mandate renewed for another 10 years, political leadership will be needed for the creation and implementation of a national Mental Health Action Plan, built on the Mental Health Strategy for Canada developed during the Commission’s original mandate.

Other priorities to be championed by a Minister for Mental Health could consist of:

  1. anti-stigma and anti-discrimination initiatives, including ensuring mental and invisible illnesses are appropriately covered in a National Disabilities Act to be introduced by the government;
  2. workplace mental health, including implementation of the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace across all federal departments and agencies; and,
  3. creation of a suicide prevention fund, as advocated by organizations such as Partners for Mental Health.

Real change in how we treat and care for Canadians living with mental illness will require investments. But the cost of doing nothing is significantly higher. Not only does mental illness cost the Canadian economy an estimated $51 billion annually, untreated mental illness also has a tremendous social cost. For example, we lose approximately 4,000 Canadians to suicide annually. These are preventable deaths that, every year, outnumber total deaths by car accident, drownings, murder, HIV/AIDS and acts of terrorism or war COMBINED.

Better Is Always Possible

Yes, better is ALWAYS possible, but what does better look like when it comes to the state of mental health in Canada?

For starters, less than 8% of total federal health care spending in this country is directed towards mental health research, treatment and care. And yet, the World Health Organization forecasts that by 2020, depression alone will overtake cardiovascular disease as the number one cause of disability burden in developed countries like Canada.

A Liberal government should not condone what is tantamount to a two-tier health care system in Canada: one for physical health, and one for mental health.  Reconciling the two needs to be a government priority, and any new Health Accord negotiated with the provinces and territories ought to include a significant increase in federal investment dedicated to mental health.

A federal Minister for Mental Health could also be charged with overseeing the development and implementation of a National Suicide Prevention Strategy. This would clearly demonstrate that suicide is not only a national, preventable tragedy but a serious public health issue on which a Trudeau government is ready, willing and able to act on.

And the above points of consideration are just off the top of my head. I’m not a mental health expert, and certainly would never claim to be. There are likely many other priorities that experts in the field would be anxious to raise with decision-makers in our newly-elected government.

However, I am 1 in 5 Canadians currently coping with a mental health condition. In my lived experience, elevating mental health as a top priority in a Trudeau government — through the appointment of a Minister responsible for Mental Health — would demonstrate Real Change from the outset, and clearly show a commitment to making better possible for millions of Canadians.

Such a move would make those of us living with mental illness feel much less invisible to our government, our leaders and to society in general… and feel much less like second-class citizens in our country’s supposed “universal” healthcare system.

Here’s hoping a Trudeau government will give us all cause to embrace its sunny ways, and in doing so, give those of us living with a mental health problem or illness the courage to step out of the shadows.

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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


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