Why Ottawa must take action on mental health

In just 11 months, scientists all over the world created effective vaccines against Covid-19. No vaccine has ever been developed that quickly, thanks to international collaboration and political pressure.

If only governments and their leaders could bring that same determination to the rising tide of mental health issues, said Steve Ladurantaye, an Ottawa-based journalist and advocate for mental health organizations.

“Workplaces and governments have been outstanding at cheerleading on mental health issues, but the baseline level of care needed isn’t being provided,” Ladurantaye said.

That was in a column that Ladurantaye wrote for The Toronto Sun back in March 2021. Unfortunately, recent reports suggest that the problem has only grown since then.

In November 2021, the City of Ottawa released its Healthy Ottawa Plan, which is released every three years and details the primary health issues as defined by members of the healthcare industry.

The report concluded that 38 percent of vulnerable Ottawa adults experienced difficulty getting healthcare in 2020, with another 55 percent saying that the prohibitive cost of healthcare was responsible for the barriers to receiving care.

But the biggest revelation was the state of mental health problems, which have increased significantly since the previous report in 2017. Nearly one in six county adults (15.3 percent) reported mental health problems, about double from the previous report.

Of those surveyed, 1 in 20 reported suicidal thoughts, and of those, 1 in 5 reported an attempted suicide within the past year.

“While the pandemic had a negative ripple effect on many health outcomes for Ottawa County adults, perhaps no impact was greater than on their mental health,” the plan said.

It also outlined the ways that healthcare advocates suggest addressing the problem, like forming partnerships with employers and increasing the amount of mental healthcare providers.

But Steve Ladurantaye doesn’t feel too optimistic about when and how those goals will be met. Success depends on the local and national government greatly expanding their support of mental health organizations, which they have so far been unwilling to do, Ladurantaye said.

Ladurantaye has struggled for years with bi-polar disorder, and has been an outspoken critic of the difficulty and frustration that many people face when trying to find treatment for mental health conditions.

“We have many excellent institutions that can meet these needs, but they’re not getting adequate funding for the level of demand for their services,” he said. “Organizations like Children's Mental Health Ontario or the Canadian Mental Health Association — they routinely pay for ads asking for additional government support to deal with the skyrocketing need, but nothing changes.”

To be clear, it’s not only Ottawa or even Canada that’s failing to meet mental health needs in the wake of the pandemic. The problem is global.

Also in November 2021, Statistics Canada released new numbers on the state of mental health, and drew a similar conclusion as Ottawa. A greater proportion of Canadian adults screened positive for major depressive disorder in spring 2021 compared with fall 2020 (19% compared to 15%). Also, a higher proportion of Canadian adults screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder (15% in spring 2021 vs. 13% in fall 2020).

In the U.S., a coalition of the nation's top experts in pediatric health issued an urgent warning declaring a mental health crisis among children so desperate that it should be considered a national emergency.

And in a recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Pandemic Is Ending With A Whimper,” Juliette Kayyem wrote: “The pandemic will not have a discrete end. The coronavirus will not raise a white flag. There will be no peace treaty, no parade.”

In some ways, that sentiment might be true, Ladurantaye said, but given the ubiquitous and ballooning need for mental health, it also feels like “many people are screaming for help.”

“Ottawa and Canada can do better for the thousands of Canadians trying and failing to get the treatment they need,” Ladurantaye said. “The evidence is clear. I hope that one day the status quo starts acting on it.”

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