Canada’s First National Mental Health Program, by Linda

Modern mental health care is a rapidly progressing field of study. It is also something that is constantly evolving and reshaping itself as the very complex human mind is navigated. Psychology is now one of the most popular masters degree programs in many countries and more labs are continuing to open. However, while this wave sweeps some coasts and countries, other places are ignoring the idea and passing it off as a luxury or myth while others, like Canada, are working to begin implementing programs to help the growing number of citizens affected by mental illness.

The purpose of Canada’s first National Mental Health Strategy, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s newsletter, is “to help improve mental health and well-being for all people living in Canada and to create a mental health system that can truly meet the needs of people of all ages living with mental health problems and illnesses and their families.”

At least one in five Canadians will be affected by a mental illness each year, costing the Canadian economy $51 billion. The strategy is “designed as a co-ordinated, adequately funded implementation plan toward real mental health improvements for Canadians,” according to online news source, York Region. The strategy will not only impact the health sector, but other government departments as well, including education, justice, corrections, social services, and finance, all of which have an influence on people’s mental health and well-being. Workplaces and the media will have a role to play as well.

The mental health program sets out a challenge for all Canadians by laying out six strategic points, each of which include several priorities and recommendations; 109 recommendations in all. A priority which stands out from a legal standpoint is Priority 2.3, to “uphold the rights of people living with mental health problems and illnesses,” which includes recommendations to remove barriers to full participation in society, align policies and legislation with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, move away from the use of seclusion and restraints, and support advocacy.

Another priority is to bring people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. These priorities call for a change in the public perception of the mentally ill. For one thing, the strategy recommends a shift from the medical model of disabilities to the social model. Under the new recommendations, disabilities are not to be viewed as a pure biological defect or imbalance, but as the result of social “labeling” based on the way the “able” define performance in society. Government officials including police, as well as the public, will be encouraged to embrace this perception for the strategy to be completely effective.

Under the strategy, the federal government and provincial governments are also asked to increase the proportion of health spending specifically allocated for mental health from 7% to 9% over the next decade, or a $4 billion investment. They are also expected to increase the amount of spending earmarked for mental health by 2 percentage points within the social spending budgets of various departments, in fields like, education, criminal justice, and housing.

To make sure that this and other aspects of the strategy are adopted nationwide “will require a major grassroots advocacy campaign,” CMAJ reported. “We must promote awareness amongst all Canadians and we must make sure that all aspects of mental health are addressed at every level,” said Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Although she sidestepped questions regarding where this additional money was to be found.

The strategies, such as “promoting mental health across the lifespan,” are often quite broad, and the recommendations accompanying them often don’t specify actions which might be taken. Perhaps colleges and universities could take on part of the job of applying the plan to real situations and real people, and spreading the “gospel” of the Canadian National Mental Health Strategy.

Linda Zabriske

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