Getting down to work on an agenda for real mental health reform

Age-based discrimination compounds the stigma of mental health.

By Jo Simon

There was no drumroll. Not hereabouts anyway. But as spring came to Canada, a long-overdue battle was launched to have mental health needs and concerns given a place on the national agenda and, most importantly, in the consciousness of Canadians. The goal, admittedly far in the future, is to see mental health and its pursuit achieve a status similar to that of physical health in Canadian life and in the workings of its myriad health institutions.

A vital part of this very contemporary strategy involves bringing to life a social movement of people who truly comprehend what it means to be mentally ill, so that over time there is a broad base of support in the general public for government and private efforts to build a truly effective system to assist and support them.

Appropriately, this ambitious crusade is being led by Michael Kirby, the man who, as a senator and more recently the head of the new federal Mental Health Commission of Canada, has spearheaded the quest to bring mental health issues out of the shadows and create a system that properly responds to the real needs of people with mental problems.

Early this spring, with the commission preparing to publish its groundbreaking report setting out a strategy for rebuilding the system of mental health care, Kirby left the commission and, ready now to move from planning to action, went about establishingPartners for Mental Health. He envisions this operation as a large body of private Canadians whose spirit and advocacy would over time produce fertile ground for a thorough overhaul in the way Canadians treat mental problems and the mentally ill.

Partners for Mental Health aspires to have, five years hence, one million Canadians engaged in social action to achieve a society where mentally troubled or ill people have access to appropriate care and treatment, in a timely manner and in or near their own communities.

The movement won’t, as Kirby acknowledges, achieve that Utopia in five years or even 10. But a strong turnout of corporate and community leaders was there for Partners’ formal launch a few weeks ago and within five weeks, as Kirby proudly reports, some 27,000 individuals across Canada had signed up as members. Mostly, though, the former senator is counting on the younger generations, with their social media and social networking, to provide the passion and enthusiasm that can actually touch the hearts of the Canadian population on the subject of mental well-being.

Where then are the problems? The list, emanating from Kirby’s old Senate committee and later Mental Health Commission reports, is a long one:
• In childhood, where society has failed to promote mental health and prevent mental illness. It’s been estimated that it’s here that 70 per cent of mental problems found in later life have their origins.
• In the workplace, “a very stressful environment” that can contribute to the development of problems – and illnesses – like depression. Mental health problems in the workplace have been shown to account for some 30 percent of short and long-term disability claims in one recent study.
• Among the elderly, who are not infrequently viewed as simply a burden to society. “Age-based discrimination,” says the Mental Health Commission’s final report in April “compounds the stigma of mental health and can get in the way of identifying and treating mental health problems.” A broad range of efforts is needed to change the situation.

Mental health problems haunt many diverse groups among us, immigrants and ethnic groups, First Nations, Inuit and Metis, and can arise out of the situation of rural living or urban life; or grow out of conditions of gender inequality.

Every year, one in five of us experience a mental illness but only one-third of those who need mental health services in Canada receive them. And whereas mental illnesses make up more than 15 per cent of the burden of disease in Canada, treatment receives only 5.5 per cent of health care dollars.

Meanwhile, stigma – a prejudice against people suffering mental health problems – today forms a major barrier preventing these people from seeking help. They regularly experience stigma when they are seeking employment, in a lack of access to decent housing at a price they can afford, in the educational opportunities open to them, as well as encountering a deficit in their human relationships – friendships, for example, and in access to family members.

The Mental Health Commission has left the clear message that it’s imperative to act at many levels if we hope to make serious progress in reducing these problems. As he works to bring on a groundswell of support, Kirby points to the ongoing pink ribbon campaign that has effectively aroused vast numbers of people across the country to join the battle against breast cancer.

The former senator recognizes, though, that the social movement he is proposing has, by definition, a larger task. It can’t do everything at once. “We will do it in pieces,” he explains, “and bring focus to one issue at a time.”

Each year, starting in April, Partners will hold a fund-raising drive. Each fall, it will tackle the job of educating the public on a different, critical area of mental health. Children and youth will be the issue this year – a subject that one way or another touches us all. In autumn, 2013, the growing Partners movement will turn the spotlight on another devastating area of mental health – the problems in the workplace.

With the determined Michael Kirby at the helm, you can count on these campaigns having a genuine impact. Watch for them and keep an open mind!

If you would like to join in the movement, visit

One thought on “Getting down to work on an agenda for real mental health reform”

  1. Research indicates that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, well before adulthood. Three new studies investigate the cognitive, genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to mental health disorders in adolescence. The studies are published in Psychological Science and Clinical Psychological Science, journals of the Association for Psychological Science. :

    Our own blog page

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