The forgotten election issue: Mental health care

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Tuesday September 20, 2011

St. Catharines Standard

Where the parties stand:

The platforms of the major parties running in the election mention little about mental health. Here is what they do say:

— NDP: No mention in the platform document.

— Greens: No mention in the platform document.

— Progressive Conservative: One reference: "The size and scope of our health system obscures the most important person: the patient. Care in Ontario is structured around forms, processes, long lines, and bureaucracy, when it should be built from the patient out. This is true when it comes to emergencies. It's true when it comes to chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes. It's especially true for people who have a mental illness who too often get lost in the system."

— Liberal: "Mental health is creating an increasing burden on Ontario's health care system, businesses and families. One in five of our citizens has struggled with mental illness. We'll face this challenge with a comprehensive approach to mental health. Our investment will start with a focus on kids, touching the lives of some 50,000 young Ontarians. Then we'll focus on prevention, early identification and services for adults."


When it comes to mental health services in Ontario, Ellis Katsof says it's a dance of two steps forward and one step back.

Each new improvement is overshadowed by systemic problems that have gone unaddressed for decades.

Although not a burning election issue in Ontario, demand for mental health services continues to grow. A recent funding boost from Queen's Park will benefit organizations like Katsof's Pathstone Mental Health — the region's primary service for children — but a lack of long-term funding to cope with rising costs threatens jobs and services.

"This is the most exciting thing I have seen happen in mental health services in Ontario. So we have to give credit where it is due," said Katsof, the CEO of Pathstone, of recent funding increases from the province.

He expects to find out soon how much Pathstone's share of new funding will be, and says it could mean the organization can restore staff it has to cut over the past year.

At the same time, he said, inflation continues to drive costs up and new funding isn't sufficient to, address it.

"So we may be able to get back what we lost, but come April, without inflationary funding we could be facing more staff cuts," said Katsof whose organization helps about 4,000 Niagara residents under the age of 18 and their families annually.

While health care has been a dominant election issue, it has focused largely on overall funding to hospitals, wait times and costs of administration. Mental health services, though, have been largely ignored.

They are not mentioned in either the Green party or NDP platforms. They are referenced once in the Progressive Conservative platform, in a single sentence about how wait times and bureaucracy are bogging down the health system. The Liberals devote two paragraphs to mental health services in their platform, saying it will focus on children, without offering particulars.

The absence of mental health care as an election issue frustrates those who work in the field.

They say Ontario needs to drastically improve mental health services.

"It's not an issue, because there is a stigma to mental health that I think won't go away," said Jill Dennison, regional lead for the western region of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, which covers Niagara, Hamilton, Halton, London and Windsor.

She said one in five people suffer from a mental health issue during their lives. Some 80% of adults with a mental-health problem experienced their first symptoms before they were 18, she said, and one in 100 have to cope with schizophrenia.

"The demand is out there and it's not declining," she said. "But we have to cut staff because of a lack of funding."

She said the organization receives only 25% of its funding from Queen's Park. The rest comes from fund-raising, forcing limited staff to divert time and energy away from helping those in need.

"Last year, we had to close our offices in London and in Windsor because of a lack of funding," she said.

Services like the schizophrenia society help those who haven't been hospitalized or have just been released from an institution, and their families.