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COLUMN: Mental health care not high enough priority

Time to take mental health seriously, says Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP
MP Carol Hughes
Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. File photo

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP, Carol Hughes writes a regular column about initiatives and issues impacting our community.

Oct. 10 was World Mental Health Day. Mental health is a vital part of everyone’s health and well-being, yet we don’t frequently treat it with the same level of care or concern that we treat aspects of physical health. It can often be difficult for people to know when they need assistance with mental health, and when they do seek assistance it’s an uphill battle to ensure they get the help from a trained mental health professional in a timely manner.

It’s important to note the distinction between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is like other forms of physical health that must on occasion be maintained but does not necessarily mean an illness is present. A person who has experienced trauma, for example, may not necessarily have a mental illness, but may need assistance with their mental health. Mental illness is generally associated more with specific longer-term disorders.

Mental health problems are quite common. One in five Canadians have had a mental health problem in their lifetime, but less than one-third of those have sought help. A significant number of people in need of mental health services aren’t getting the help they need.

The most frequent barriers that prevent people from seeking mental health services, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, are financial constraints and waitlists. While some mental health services are provided under public health insurance, such as treatment from a psychiatrist or general practitioner, other assistance may not be, such as psychotherapy from a private practice. Last year, a Canadian Institute of Health Information study showed that half of Canadians referred for mental health services waited a month or longer.

If mental health care is as necessary as the data suggests and access is a significant barrier for people seeking mental health services, then clearly we need to do more to make sure those services are readily available.  We must first ensure that mental health services across the country are adequately funded to ensure we bring down lengthy wait times. 

Last year, the Liberal government committed to delivering $4.5 billion over five years in targeted improvements to mental health services, but we are still waiting for the details of this plan to emerge. A costing of their platform shows that they promised to spend $250-million in 2021 on a new mental health transfer to provinces, an additional $625 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year, and the remaining $3.625 billion in the following three years. Investments have yet to be made and we are still awaiting those details. These are not small amounts and it’s clear that developing a national mental health plan takes time and effort, but it’s important to get help to people who need it now.

In November 2023, there will be a rollout of the 988 crisis line for suicide prevention, which should hopefully be a great tool to help save lives, but we also need services for people who are not necessarily at a crisis point.

In the interim, there are still concrete steps that can be taken to help people with mental health services now.

One thing we can do immediately is remove GST/HST that counselling therapists and psychotherapists are required to charge to their patients. While this would not remedy the cost burden patients are feeling to access those services, it is something that could save people fairly significant money and could be implemented without delay, without requiring a broad plan, as it would simply save people amounts of money that would otherwise be paid in taxes.

More broadly, we must also continue to pressure the government to implement a universal public pharmacare plan that would extend to prescription medication for mental health care. Mental health care must be comprehensive enough to ensure that all aspects are covered under the Canada Health Act.

It’s time we tackle mental health care so all Canadians have the respect and support they deserve.