Grant LaflecheSt. Catharines Standard
Date Published: Wednesday, May 9, 2012
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It is not uncommon for mental-health care in Canada to be labelled “the mental health system.” The term is inaccurate — there really isn’t a system in place at all.
“We’re very fragmented,” said Ellis Katsof, CEO of Pathstone Mental Health, the region’s only youth and child mental health service. “Each province and each region works on its own. There is best practice, of course, and what we do is not done in isolation.
“But it is not really a system.”
A document released Tuesday by the Mental Health Commission of Canada seeks to change that. After nearly five years of research and planning, the commission has drawn up Canada’s first national strategy on mental health.
Called Changing Directions, Changing Lives, it lays out a general blueprint to create a mental health system in Canada.
“This is exactly what we need,” said Katsof. “This is all we can ask for from a national strategy.”
It proposes six general directions to improve mental health services in Canada:
- broader promotion of mental health in homes, schools and work places;
- foster recovery for people living with mental health problems, and defend their rights;
- proper access to services;
- address the needs of those living in northern communities;
- address mental health issues for First Nations communities;
- and mobilize and foster improved leadership on the issue across Canada.
The strategy also calls for an extra $4 billion to be spent on mental health services over the next decade.
Howard Chodos, special adviser to the commission, said Tuesday that because health care is a provincial responsibility and not federal, the strategy cannot mandate anything. Instead, it is intended to be a resource all provinces can draw on and work from for the same set of ideas.
Each province will have to take the strategy and use it to improve services, he said.
While praising the strategy, Katsof noted the changes it recommends won’t happen overnight.
In many ways, the hard work is just beginning.
He said one-in-five people under the age of 18 will suffer a mental health problem of some kind. In Niagara, that works out to around 19,000 possible cases, and Pathstone helps about 4,500 youths annually. Potentially that leaves some 14,500 young people without assistance. Those numbers grow substantially when adults are brought into the picture.
The problems locally are acute.
According to Pathstone, Niagara’s rate of youths whose mental health problems cause violent behavior is higher than most of the province. The causes are not entirely clear, but appear to linked to the region’s poor socio-economic statistics.
“We know these are directly related to our health,” Katsof said.
The region’s suicide statistics are also high.
In Niagara, 9.8 people per 100,000 die by suicide each year. The provincial rate is 7.7 people, according to Statistics Canada. By comparison, Sudbury’s rate is 11.7, while nearby Halton region’s is 5.5.
The numbers of those admitted to hospital from suicide attempts mirror these figures. Nationally, 58 people out of 100,000 are treated in hospital following suicide attempts. In Niagara, that number is 72 out of 100,000.
Chodos said because suicide is inexorably linked to mental health, special attention is paid to it in the new strategy.
“We did not create a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy, because that was not our mandate,” he said. “However, thousands of people are impacted every year by suicide, so we felt it was important to include it throughout the strategy.”
Niagara was recently reminded of the strong links between mental health and suicide. Two weeks ago, 15-year-old David McIntyre took his own life as his parents struggled to find help for his anxiety and chronic suicidal thoughts.
While Niagara’s stats are grim, the ability to cope with them is always a challenge, Katsof said.
Niagara has only one child psychiatrist actively taking new cases. And while a great deal of frontline mental health work is done by social workers, he said recruiting them to Niagara is difficult because of the chronic human resources shortage.
Pathstone mental health services director Bill Helmeczi said the organization recently received extra funding for 13 new positions. However, the jobs had to be listed several times as it was difficult to draw social workers to Niagara.
“Obviously, we cannot just throw money at the problem,” Katsof said.
“We really do need to restructure how we deliver services.”
Chodos admitted the human resources challenges for smaller communities like Niagara are complicated and will take time and effort to overcome. The hope is with increased funded and attention, more professionals will want to come to under-serviced communities, he said.
Funding, said Katsof, is always a challenge, but Ontario is already on the right track. Recent financial improvements to mental health services in the province and a 10-year-plan are in line with the goals of the strategy, he said.
Ultimately, Katsof and Chodos said the aim is build a system where Canadians have access to appropriate services no matter they live.
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)