Khaliq: The Canada Health Act is failing people with mental illness

The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that mental health problems and illnesses cost Canada about $50 billion per year. We can and must do better.

Yasmin Khaliq 3 minute read December 3, 2021

Carolyn Bennett, the newly appointed minister of Mental Health and Addictions, must make amending the Canada Health Act her number one priority so mental illness can be treated the same as physical illness. JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association one in five Canadians is currently living with mental illness. By age 40, half of Canadians have suffered — or are suffering — some form of it.

Between 2009 and 2019, there was a 60-per-cent increase in emergency department room visits and hospitalizations among adolescents. Only one in five young Canadians gets the treatment needed.

Whether in human suffering or financial cost, the evidence is clear: mental health services in Canada are appallingly inadequate.

Canadians struggle to get counselling and supportive services. Access is limited and wait times are long: weeks, months and even years. With community support lacking, hospitals provide 80 per cent of current mental health services as acute care, and are overwhelmed dealing with mental-health crises.

And there is the problem: Canadians have to be in crisis to get help.

What Canadians need and deserve is free and accessible mental health services. And they need these now.

In their 2021 election platform, the Trudeau Liberals promised to create a new permanent financial transfer to the provinces called the Canadian Mental Health Transfer.

National stakeholders have loudly voiced their support for this transfer, while also recommending amending the Canada Health Act or introducing legislation specifically directed to mental health needs.

In theory, all mental health services should already be covered by this legislation. The Act even states: “The primary objective of Canadian health care policy is to protect, promote and restore the physical and mental well-being of residents of Canada and to facilitate reasonable access to health services without financial or other barriers.”

That’s what it states, but not what it comes close to achieving.

The newly appointed minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Carolyn Bennett, must make amending the Act her number one priority so mental illness can be treated the same as physical illness, and free mental health services can be readily available in all Canadian communities.

There is also a massive financial price to pay for not providing these services.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that mental health problems and illnesses cost Canada about $50 billion per year. That includes $6 billion due to absenteeism and turnover in workplaces.

They estimate that if we reduce mental illness by even 10 per cent a year, that will translate into $4-billion cost savings per year.

Mental illness can affect any of us, or any of our family members, but it is far more profound for the homeless, for those who are living in poverty, or for those who experience discrimination. And, of course, mental distress has been compounded by the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees equality, yet the disproportionate impact of mental illness on disadvantaged populations suggests we are not meeting our Charter obligations.

But it can be done.

We can keep people out of hospital and in their jobs. We can keep people out of the criminal justice system and reduce the backlog in the courts. Lives could be saved, productivity improved and the financial burden on our nation significantly reduced.

The first crucial step, introducing legislation that includes community mental health support, would begin the path to improved mental health care for all Canadians. This would provide hope to those living with mental illness, and those watching their loved ones suffer.

Yasmin Khaliq has been an Ottawa pharmacist for more than 25 years. She is currently studying Common Law with a focus on health law, at the University of Ottawa. She has a family member living with mental illness.

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