Joy MacPhail: We need to fix social problems to improve mental health in B.C.

Premier John Horgan, with Evan Sky makes a mental health program announcement at Mountainside Secondary School in North Vancouver, June 26, 2019. A Pathway To Hope lays out the government’s 10-year vision for mental health and addictions care.


The Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction produced a new plan designed to improve mental health and addictions care, called A Pathway to Hope. The plan is a step in the right direction to improve the well-being of all citizens.

For far too long, problems with the current mental health system in British Columbia have remained unaddressed, leading to devastating consequences.

The ministry reported that B.C. has the country’s highest rate of hospitalization due to mental illness and substance use and that more than 1,500 people died from a drug overdose in 2018. The demand for services far exceeds what is available and there is a clear need for stronger and more accessible mental health programs. As minister of health in the mid-1990s, I acknowledge my share of responsibility for these outcomes. Recognizing these gaps in our current system is a crucial first step to moving forward with effective solutions.

The ministry fittingly recognizes that larger societal factors, such as colonialism and racism, have led to Indigenous peoples having disproportionally poorer mental health outcomes and being overrepresented in social, health and justice services. By engaging First Nations communities to design and deliver mental health services, the plan will begin to reduce the barriers to mental health care that Indigenous peoples currently experience.

Key to the ministry’s plan is the creation of seamless and integrated mental health services, an approach that would strengthen the opportunity for early intervention and ensure the accessibility and appropriateness of needed services. The plan is sound and requires sustained efforts and commitment to implement, but will ultimately ensure that mental health needs are met holistically, regardless of clients’ point of contact with services.

The ministry’s plan calls on organizations, businesses, and academic institutions to collaborate and create shared solutions. At Adler University, we couldn’t agree more. In fact, one of our main goals is to train mental health service providers to work with underserviced and vulnerable populations.

As part of our academic programs, our psychology and counselling students work at dozens of community agencies in the Lower Mainland, providing mental health services to marginalized people. The new Adler Community Health Services in Vancouver will make effective mental health care accessible to more people through our community partners. Additionally, our university is training the next generation of clinicians who can help fill the demand for quality mental health services, especially in underserved communities.

Improving mental health services is just one step we need to take if we truly want all British Columbians to have optimal physical and mental health. Mental health problems don’t develop in a vacuum. The health of individuals is directly related to the health of their communities. This idea was articulated by Alfred Adler, the first community psychologist and namesake of our university, in the late 1800s and it continues to resonate today.

With that in mind, we need to take a close look at what elements of our communities are contributing to various forms of deteriorating mental health and addictions. By working together to prevent systemic problems, such as trauma, homelessness and economic inequality, we can promote better mental health and wellness for everyone.

Joy MacPhail is chairwoman of the board of trustees of Adler University, which offers graduate-level programs in psychology, counselling and public policy, all with a focus on “positive social change” at campuses in Vancouver and Chicago. She is also a former long-serving NDP B.C. MLA and cabinet minister.

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