Mental Health, Illness and Addiction Services in Canada


February 1st, 2012

Inquiry - Debate Continued

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Hubley, calling the attention of the Senate to the 5th anniversary of the tabling of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology's report: Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada.

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, it is difficult for me to believe that it has been five years since the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology tabled its report, entitled: Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada. As a member of that committee, I still have vivid memories of the testimony of many individuals from across the country recounting their heart-wrenching stories. So much of the report can be attributed to those brave Canadians who shared their stories with the committee. They are true champions and leaders in the field of mental health, mental illness and addictions.

We can hear from organizations and health care professionals here in Ottawa, but it is the very personal stories and experiences that bring home the seriousness that poor mental health can have on Canadians who have a mental illness and on their families.

Honourable senators, the fact is that one in five Canadians will suffer from some form of poor mental health in their lives. This is an issue that affects every Canadian: a loved one, a family member, a co-worker. Everyone, even those in this chamber, probably has someone in their lives who will experience poor mental health at some time in their lives.

When the committee concluded its study on health care, it was unanimously decided that the committee's next study was to be on mental health in Canada. Senator Kirby, who was the Chair of the Social Affairs Committee at that time, went around the table and asked senators what area of health care we should focus on next. Every senator around the table said "mental health." Each senator on the committee at the time had had a close friend or family member who suffered from poor mental health at some time. Not only was the decision unanimous, but every member of the committee felt passionately about the issue.

Honourable senators, it was quickly evident from our study of Canada's health care system, and as we began our study on mental health and addiction issues, that mental health initiatives, treatment and mental health understanding in Canada was drastically underfunded and under-serviced. As Senator Hubley so eloquently addressed during this inquiry, this was particularly the state of mental health and addiction services in Canada's First Nations and Inuit communities.

As the study on Canada's mental health and addictions system and services progressed, several discouraging themes became apparent: A lack of a national policy or strategy; a real lack of understanding of mental health issues among the public, leading to the devastating stigma and discrimination of those experiencing mental health problems; and a lack of initiatives and understanding from the private sector.

In order to ensure that programs and research initiatives would operate most effectively and efficiently, the committee recognized that there was a need for a national mental health strategy and a need for coordination among mental health care stakeholders. We felt this would best be accomplished through the establishment of a national mental health commission.

As outlined in Chapter 16 of our report, the commission's mission would be to act as a facilitator, an enabler and supporter of a national approach to mental health issues; to be a catalyst for reform of mental health policies and improvements in service delivery; to provide a national focal point for objective, evidence-based information on all aspects of mental health and mental illness; to be a source of information to government, stakeholders and the public on mental health and mental illness; to educate all Canadians about mental health and increase mental health literacy in Canada, particularly among those in leadership roles, such as employers, members of the health profession, teachers, et cetera; and to diminish the stigma and discrimination faced by Canadians living with a mental illness and their families.

In 2007 this government established the Mental Health Commission of Canada — the first tangible change initiated by our report. The mental health commission is headed by our former committee chair, the Honourable Michael Kirby. As of now, the commission has not published its national strategy but it is expected to do so later this year.

According to some statistics, poor mental health and addiction issues are costing the Canadian economy upwards of $51 billion each year, a fact governments and, more importantly, corporate Canada are acknowledging. A healthy workforce, both physically and mentally, is a productive workforce.

A great example of corporate Canada recognizing the need to address mental health issues is Bell Canada's Let's Talk campaign in support of Canadian mental health, to help fight the stigma associated with mental health issues. Too many Canadians will avoid treatment for mental health issues because of the continuing stigma around the disease. Despite the high numbers — one in five Canadians — there is continuing stigma and discrimination against those who have poor mental health or addictions.

I will never forget, as a member of the committee, listening to the young woman who attended at our hearings in St. John's. She was probably in her late 20s. She was married, university educated and bilingual. She had been working for the federal government in Ottawa and then she became clinically depressed. She was on leave from her job and had moved back to Newfoundland and Labrador for financial reasons and to be closer to her family. She started to cry in front of the committee and said she wished she had breast cancer because then at least she would not have lost her family and her friends. I am not sure if senators are supposed to cry at public hearings, but I found myself dabbing at my eyes because it should not be this way for those with poor mental health.

Bell Canada's Let's Talk campaign's national spokesperson is Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. Ms. Hughes also suffered from depression for many years. On February 8, Bell Canada is having its second annual Let's Talk campaign, where they will donate five cents for every text and long-distance call made by Bell customers to help fund hospitals, grassroots organizations and workplace initiatives across corporate Canada that will support mental health research. The campaign is national in scope and has been well advertised across all media outlets in Canada, including promotion, even at this past weekend's NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa.

The Social Affairs Committee report may not be directly responsible for Bell Canada's initiative, but I like to think that our report is playing an integral part in helping to bring mental health issues into the open and into the mainstream media and national conscience. Breaking down misconceptions and discrimination will be an important part of effective treatment for Canadians who have poor mental health. There is still a long way to go before mental health and addiction issues receive the same status as physical health care, but even in the five years since the report was tabled we are beginning to make some progress.

As a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, this report is a source of great pride for its members and should be a source of great pride for the Senate as a whole. Out of the Shadows at Last: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada continues to be an illustrative example of what the Senate does best when we work together.