Goar: Ontario’s overlooked health crisis

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Wednesday June 8, 2011

Carol Goar

If you live in Toronto, you’re surrounded by the best health-care facilities in the province. You have a better chance of finding a family doctor than the majority of Ontarians. You can get a referral to the country’s top medical specialists.

But there’s one area in which the city doesn’t fare well. Toronto devotes a paltry 2.7 per cent of its health spending to mental health and addiction services. That is below the provincial average (3.3 per cent). It is lower than the corresponding figure for Brampton (4.2 per cent) and the city’s northern suburbs (3.7 per cent).

The best place in the province to get mental health and addiction services is Thunder Bay. Its regional health authority allocates 7.8 per cent of its spending to these services. It takes four days to be assigned a “case manager” who provides one-on-one support (compared with 66 days in Toronto). You can get into supportive housing in 90 days (377 days in Toronto).

The worst place to look for help is Hamilton. Its regional health unit spends just 2.3 per cent of its budget — $56 per capita — on services and support for people with psychiatric problems.

“Treatment for mental health and addiction issues right now is determined by your postal code,” says Mary Alberti, who heads the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. She doesn’t think that’s right. She doesn’t think most Ontarians would tolerate this level of disparity, if they knew.

But they don’t. The public is unaware of the gaps and inequities in the province’s mental health system. The average citizen has no idea what services are available in his or her community, let alone others.

That’s why the 10 provincial organizations that provide help for people with mental illness and addictions — from peer support groups such as the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario to psychiatric hospitals such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) — have banded together for the first time. “We’re here because we want to speak with one voice,” said Catherine Zahn, president and chief executive of CAMH at the launch of the Ontario Mental Health and Addictions Alliance.

“We’re looking to make this a huge issue in the next election,” added Dennis Long, executive director of Breakaway Addiction Services.

Mental health advocates have said this before. They have tried desperately to convince provincial politicians that a condition affecting one out of five Ontarians deserves more than 3 cents out of every health dollar. They have asked repeatedly for clear provincial standards and government leadership.

Each newly elected government agrees — then commissions another study. There have been 14 of them in the past 25 years.

This time, things will be different, the alliance vows. For one thing, its members won’t be issuing a plethora of competing demands. They’ve agreed to zero in on four priorities:

 • Ontarians in every region must have equitable access to basic mental health and addiction services.

 • Children and adolescents must have first call on the province’s mental health resources.

 • People with serious mental illness and addictions must have access to supportive housing.

 • And the Ontario government must stop chopping up mental health issues into fragments — education, social services, housing, justice and health care — that don’t match people’s needs.

Moreover, the alliance plans to mobilize voters riding-by-riding. Every family is touched by mental illness, the alliance contends. Every community is dealing with symptoms of untreated mental illness; homelessness, poverty, school failure, absenteeism, unemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence, incarceration and suicide.

“We believe people care,” said Gordon Floyd, chief executive of Children’s Mental Health Ontario. “They just haven’t connected the dots.”

Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.