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Federal election a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix the mental health system, says CMHA

The Canadian Mental Health Association calls on federal parties to ensure mental health care is a top priority in the upcoming election campaign.

Published on The Canadian Mental Health Association website on August 16, 2021.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is calling for all federal parties to make mental health a top priority in this election campaign, and to seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make meaningful and lasting reforms to mental health care. CMHA is Canada’s most extensive community mental health organization. 

The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on the mental health of Canadians and exposed glaring gaps in our mental health care system. It has shown the need for all governments to provide significant and increased resources to address mental health in Canadian communities. Now is the time for the federal government to provide heightened leadership and sustained investments to close these critical gaps in our mental health care system, says CMHA. 

“Everyone has their own story of how COVID-19 has impacted their mental wellness,” said Margaret Eaton, CMHA National CEO. “Maybe they are grieving a loved one or have lost their job and are experiencing financial hardship. Or maybe they are suffering the impacts of illness or the loneliness of being separated from friends, family, and community. This election, we are asking all federal parties and candidates to do two things: to acknowledge the underfunding of mental health services at the community level, that has resulted in so much unmet need; and to strongly support sustained federal government action to address it. Our families and our communities need these services urgently.” 

CMHA staff and volunteers, who provide mental health programs and services in communities across the country, witnessed a sharp deterioration in Canadians’ mental health as the pandemic widened persistent mental health inequities, making things worse for those who were already vulnerable. 

Research conducted by CMHA and UBC researchers found: 

  • 44 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men have experienced a decline in mental health since the start of the pandemic. 
  • The presence of suicidal thoughts is very worrisome among many groups, including: 
    • One in ten parents of children under 18.  
    • One in seven people with a disability 
    • One in five people who already had mental health challenges 
    • One in six Indigenous people. 
  • 70 per cent of school-aged children and 66 per cent of pre-school aged children have experienced a deterioration in their mental health. 

Even before the pandemic, one in five Canadians experienced mental illness or a mental health issue in any given year and 1.6 million Canadians already had unmet mental health needs. 

“We believe the path forward is a pan-Canadian plan to invest directly in communities —not only to treat Canadians with mental illnesses close to home, but also to prevent mental health crises in the first place,” said Eaton. “That is the key to our collective recovery from COVID-19 and beyond.” 

Federal leadership is required to make meaningful progress on mental health in every community. Since many mental health services are often delivered outside of hospitals and physicians’ offices, they are not considered ‘medically necessary’ under the Canada Health Act, and, as such, are excluded from federal health transfers. “If we provide people with timely access to the care and treatment they need to recover from mental illnesses and substance use problems in their own communities, we can avoid more costly and time-consuming interventions later,” Eaton added. 

CMHA recommends: 

  • Direct federal investment to sustain and improve access to chronically underfunded community mental health programs and services to ensure every Canadian who needs mental health supports can get them. 
  • Investment in additional supportive and affordable housing for people with mental illnesses and substance use problems to ensure that they have safe places to live as they recover. 
  • An increase in funding for Indigenous-led mental health services to advance reconciliation and to better support Indigenous communities.
  • More funding to support people who use substances; this includes funding to enhance access to substance use treatments and supports, ensuring integration between mental health and substance use supports, increasing the number and accessibility of supervised consumption sites, and decriminalizing simple drug possession.