Imagine yourself sitting in the house alone day after day, jumping at every noise and wincing at bright lights. You finally get up the courage to step out the house and go to the hospital to ask for help. Getting there is painful. You have to deal with the crowds of people on the subway and the constant fear of being watched walking down the street. Finally, you get to the hospital and wait for several hours before seeing a physician. You are given a list of phone numbers and then asked to leave. Clutching the piece of paper, you retreat back to your home and close the door.
In Toronto, people are turned away every day at hospitals and health centres and sent home with a list of contacts to call, only to be forced to sort through the maze of mental health on their own, oftentimes ending up on long waitlists with no aid. The issue in part has to do with the history of mental health in Canada. In the 1980s, mental health reforms across the world deinstitutionalized people from mental hospitals and many countries failed to provide a strong alternative. Many sick people fell into chronic homelessness, and a lack of replacement funding was offered.
In Canada, this is certainly the case. Other countries worldwide did implement strong healthcare systems that work to this day. Trieste in Italy created a network of 24-hour mental health facilities with inpatient beds and group home facilities for people with mental health in need of housing support. Because of constant access to mental health care, Trieste is known worldwide as the example to follow in managing the mental health needs of a population adequately.
It is no longer acceptable to place mental health as a secondary concern in health care. In Canada, mental health is a leading disability and affects one in five Canadians annually. According to the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), by the time the average Canadian reaches 40, one in two having been diagnosed with a mental illness. Finally, mental illness burdens individuals 1.5 times higher than all cancers, and more then seven times of infectious diseases. This is due to the number of years living with mental illness and a higher rate of early death.
How is turning people away from receiving help for mental health issues a proper response to a severe medical concern? If someone can’t leave their house due to aggressive anxiety, or is so depressed they are contemplating suicide, how is it remotely appropriate to put people on a waitlist?
CAMH alone has an eight-to-ten-week processing time once a doctor referral is submitted. If someone has a debilitating mental illness, it is left up to them alone to make a mental health plan. It often falls to families and friends to help strategize what to do, and finding resources and filling out forms for long waitlists is exhausting.How many people simply fall off the grid and never receive the help they need? If the person who needs mental health aid does not have anyone to support them, they have to shoulder to burden themselves with no help in sight.
The federal government has promised to make mental health a priority, but has come under criticism as of late for cutting the Canada Health Transfer annual increase from six per cent to three per cent. Health Minister Jane Philpott has said she is committed to supporting mental health help, but the federal government has yet to provide any specific amount of funding.
Mental health needs to be a primary concern in Canada. It is no longer a conversation to have in hushed tones in the corner, but a public discourse that needs to be dealt with in the immediate future. There is nothing shameful about living with a mental illness. Can you imagine a society where each person living in Toronto had access to free counselling in every neighbourhood? It could be the change our society needs, to put people’s mental health first and foremost in a world that definitely needs it.