Take mental health seriously


Warren (Smokey) Thomas

Imagine you’re out for a walk and see someone lying on the street, bleeding. If you’re like most of us, you’ll try to help. Maybe you know first aid. Maybe you’ve got your phone and can call an ambulance.

Now imagine you see someone in mental distress. They’re yelling at the top of their lungs, or whispering obscenities, or taking off their clothes. What do you do then? Well, if you’re like a lot of people, you might cross the street and walk away. A lot of people don’t know what to do. They don’t know who to call.

People with mental illness often get neglected. So it shouldn’t surprise us that mental health care is being neglected, too.

Mental health care in Ontario is suffering. It’s suffering from a lack of understanding by politicians. It’s suffering from severe underfunding. It’s suffering from the stigma that mental illness is different from other illnesses. And when mental health care suffers, people with mental health issues suffer, too.

Health care in this province is underfunded — by now, everybody knows. Nine consecutive years of real-dollar cuts have left hospitals unable to properly care for the most vulnerable in our society — those who are sick. Instead of receiving more funding for this most basic need, hospitals and community programs are constantly having to do more with less.

Mental health care has always been the poor cousin in the health-care system. A Canadian Institute for Health Information report estimates mental health care in Ontario is underfunded by about $1.5 billion. Yet as part of its mental health and addictions strategy, the province has committed to investing just under $20 million between 2014 and 2017. That’s not good enough.

The dearth of funds and services in mental health care is further marginalizing one of the most marginalized groups in our society. All too often, the mentally ill end up in hospitals that are not equipped to deal with them, or in jail or prison. Some studies suggest that there are between 60 and 70 per cent more federal offenders with serious mental health problems in our prisons than there were two decades ago.

Mental illness can take many forms: depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, substance abuse or schizophrenia, to name a few. A study prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada determined that in any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness. Other studies suggest that by 2030, mental health issues will be the leading cause of disability in Canada.

But despite attempts to educate the public, there is still a double standard when it comes to the way we see the mentally ill. That double standard spills over to governments when they are making funding decisions.

I have worked on the front lines of the mental health field for most of my adult life. Before my work with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union ((OPSEU), I was a registered practical nurse at Kingston Psychiatric Hospital. I have first-hand experience with the people who need mental health care, and the workers who provide that care.

Earlier this year, I wrote to our minister of labour about my concerns over the welfare of staff at the Providence Care mental health facility in Kingston and the Royal Ottawa-Brockville mental health facility in Brockville. He wrote back. Hopefully that means the government is at least willing to listen.

Right now, mental health care workers who want to provide the best for their patients have their hands tied, because they don’t have adequate resources. It’s time we understood the domino effect of mental health underfunding, and give it the attention it deserves.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It touches us all. And when we ignore the inadequacies of a system that should be there to help us, what will happen if one day we need to depend on that system ourselves?

Apathy never leads to change. That’s why we all need to take mental health care seriously. Talk to your friends, write to your MPP — demand that they listen. Do something.

Please don’t cross the street and walk away.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas is president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

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