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Health Accord must address growing mental health crisis in Canada

Hon. Michael Wilson, Board Chair, Mental Health Commission of Canada

As the federal, provincial and territorial governments work toward a new Health Accord, one thing is apparent – there must be a significant infusion of new money earmarked to address the pressing social and economic imperative of mental health problems and illnesses in this country.

Throwing money at a problem rarely yields the desired results. So, part of the answer lies in making thoughtful, measurable investments centred on promoting innovation and sharing best practices.

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I began my tenure as chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada a little over a year ago, and I can say with certainty that the organization is making use of its bird's-eye view of the field to identify areas where smart investments could revolutionize results.

Long before I arrived, the Commission was establishing itself through research demonstration projects. These scalable initiatives have proven the effectiveness of everything from housing people living with serious mental illness through the Housing First model, to improving corporate Canada's bottom line by addressing psychological health at work.

We are now at a tipping point. Past projects are maturing, producing positive results and contributing to a strong foundation for the future. We must build on this progress over the life of our mandate, which has been extended to 2027.

The Commission developed an exhaustive Mental Health Strategy for Canada, amplifying the voices of thousands of grassroots groups, community organizations and people with lived experience across the country. The natural next step was to create a Framework for Action, which was released this past summer.

As awareness levels have increased and a comprehensive mental health strategy has taken shape, stigma has begun to dissipate and people in Canada are prepared to talk about mental health problems and illnesses. Yet, a number of gaps and risk factors are threatening our progress.

We need to address a dire lack in access to services. One targeted and measurable means is through e-mental health – an area where Canada lags behind countries like New Zealand, where this game-changing approach is transforming the mental health landscape. Through the use of advanced technologies, we can track and trace wait times while at the same time tackling the challenges of serving rural and remote communities, reaching First Nations, Inuit and Metis populations, and reaching Canada's youth.

The MHCC has identified early intervention as a key to unlocking better outcomes. We must focus on the 15-24 age group – not only because of the key stage of cognitive development, but because we need to build a bridge between the youth mental health system and that of adults. If we fail to act, young people in Canada will continue to fall into the chasm that currently exists between the two.

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One more area where we can work diligently to close a gap is around the aspiring workforce, people who want to be gainfully employed, but who are living with a serious mental illness and have been sidelined from the workforce. A winning formula for engaging this demographic could equally be applied to people living with other episodic illnesses. Tapping into their talents will require creative hiring and retention practices. However, the MHCC is hoping to prove, as we did with Housing First and the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, that social responsibility and economic pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, this paradigm could be applied to the whole of health care funding. Why must we continue to look at spending on the health of our population as a drain on the public purse? These investments – which stimulate the economy through job creation – also save money in the long term, through the creation of a healthier population.

For the first time, mental health is poised to take a place of prominence in the new Health Accord. Of course, there needs to be significant funding earmarked for ramping up access to services, community care and suicide prevention. But there must also be latitude for proving the sound economics of creative approaches.

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