Canada warned: We’re far behind on mental health

Hearings in Montreal: Patchwork services, no national policy and too little funding, commission finds

Aaron Derfel, Canwest News Service  Published: Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Canadians living with psychiatric illness are “often confronted with a confusing maze of services” that falls far short of those in other G8 nations, says a member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

In fact, Canada is the only major industrialized country without a national mental health strategy, said Howard Chodos, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University.

“We’re behind many [countries] in many respects,” Mr. Chodos said in an interview, as the commission holds hearings in Montreal today.

Mr. Chodos contends mental health services in Canada are underfunded. He noted that in Britain at least 12% of health spending is for psychiatric services. In Canada, it’s around 5%.

What’s more, Canada lacks an anti-stigma policy to fight discrimination against the mentally ill.

“There are countries like New Zealand that have had mental-health plans for well over a decade, where their work on fighting stigma is far ahead of anything we’ve got,” he said.

Part of the problem is that health care in Canada is provincial jurisdiction. The result is a patchwork of services across the country.

In 2005, the Quebec government launched a five-year action plan to improve services for the mentally ill.

Critics have charged, however, that services have deteriorated under the plan, as hospitals have been stripped of mental health teams.

Community mental-health advocates have accused the government of not following through with funding to provide adequate care to deinstitutionalized patients.

Mr. Chodos agreed, saying the “approach to deinstitutionalization was the right one, but it was never matched by sufficient resources to make it possible for people to gain access to the services that they needed in the community.

“What we’ve ended up with is people on the streets or people in the justice system when they should be cared for.”

In one startling statistic, only one out of five children who need mental health services receives them, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The Mental Health Commission, headed by former senator Michael Kirby, was founded in 2007 with funding from the federal government.

Among its initiatives: devising a national mental-health strategy, an anti-stigma policy and projects to help the growing number of homeless people who havepsychiatric disorders.

The hearing today in Montreal, at the Delta Centre-Ville Hotel, is by invitation only.

Montreal Gazette

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