Real reform or political expediency?

Tackling children’s mental health and addictions

While the Ontario provincial budget was light on new spending, investment in a comprehensive mental health strategy, starting with children and youth, stood out.

A 10-Year Mental Health and Addictions Strategy has been promised by the Liberal government for some time. It was initiated by former Health and Long-Term Care Minister David Caplan in 2009 with the creation of a special Minister’s Advisory Group and subsequent public consultations. A real push to tackle the uncoordinated and deficient mental health and addictions system came when the all-party Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions was established in 2009, an initiative called for by PC health critic Christine Elliott. The 18 months the committee spent together touring the province and writing the final report brought members from all parties together on the need for mental health reform.

One of the biggest challenges facing the mental health community has always been de-stigmatizing mental illness. From a political perspective, it makes sense to start with children and youth, in that stigma tends to be less of an issue, and children’s issues are always a win in an election year. Moreover, 70 per cent of mental health issues first appear in childhood or adolescence and with early detection comes a greater likelihood of successful treatment.

But there are many challenges if the government is going to deliver on improving mental health and addictions services for children and youth, even with an additional $93 million towards these services by 2013-14. Currently, services for children and youth are spread across many ministries — the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, Ministry of Children and Youth Services and Ministry of Education — resulting in an uncoordinated, patchwork system of services. There are lengthy waiting lists and thousands more children yet to be identified as needing help. But with suicide being the leading cause of non-accidental death in youth, fixing the system and getting kids the help they need is critical.

The Liberals were smart to proactively address mental health and addictions in the budget in that the opposition, particularly Elliott, is committed to hammering them on the lack of progress to date. However, mental health and addictions has long been considered the albatross of the health system: there are so many challenges and so much need that the size of the problem almost seems overwhelming and the price tag needed to fix it huge.

As we await the release of the province’s 10-Year Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, which is expected this spring, those in the mental health and addictions community are wise to come together to find common ground for change — and to make mental health and addictions a priority in the 2011 provincial election.

Laura Greer is an Account Director in Hill & Knowlton Toronto’s Public Affairs practice.

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Laura Greer, Vice-president
[Public Affairs, Health-care communications]