Long-suffering patients coping with Canada’s lacklustre mental health care services now find themselves in an unusual position — with all three major political parties now competing for their votes with rich promises.
“I am absolutely thrilled by the fact that this is top of mind, a major platform element of each of the key parties involved. It gives me real hope that something can be done,” said Christian Szpilfogel, who has struggled for years to obtain mental health treatment for his 26-year-old daughter Dom.
Statistics Canada says that in 2018, roughly 5.3 million people in Canada reported needing help with their mental health in the previous year — but only 56 per cent got the full treatment they needed.
The agency says the situation has only worsened due to the pandemic — which is why so many welcome the sudden political focus on mental health care.
“So we’re talking about mental health in a way during this election that we have never spoken about mental health care before. And it’s a once-in-a-generation … frankly, it’s a once-in-a-century opportunity for us to get this right,” said Sarah Kennell, national director of public policy for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Canadians looking for improved mental health services say the promises of new funding amount to a good start, but they want to see that spending targeted and tracked.
“We need stronger accountability measures to make sure that these election period funding commitments for mental health services are genuinely put towards increasing access for quality and affordable mental health services,” said Ottawa’s Samantha Grills, who has friends and family members who need improved mental health services.
“A dollar amount is great to hear, and it’s an easy sort of sound-bite promise. But just throwing money at it alone, continuing in the way things are now, would just be throwing it away,” said Jessi Green, from New Brunswick,
She has been trying to get adequate mental health services for her 21-year-old son for years and says she has been let down by a system that is unable to handle demand.
“The process is so discouraging. It is discouraging for me, so I can only imagine what it’s like to someone who’s in crisis,” she said.
The party promises:
The Liberals are proposing to create a Canada Mental Health Transfer that would funnel money to the provinces, just as the health and social transfers do now. The Liberal plan would pump $6.5 billion into mental health services over five years.
The Liberals are offering $4.5 billion over five years through the transfer — a sum they say would, when added to previous investments, amount to $2.5 billion in annual funding for mental health services by 2025-26.
Watch: One mother’s struggle to get her son mental health support:
That amount is separate from the $1.4 billion in mental health funding over five years for for First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation, and the $597 million earmarked to provide support for survivors of residential schools and their families earlier this year.
The Liberals are also promising a number of other measures:
- Undertaking a review of the Disability Tax Credit, CPP-Disability and other measures to ensure they are “available” to the people who need them.
- Bringing mental health under the Canada Labour Code
- Funding a three-digit mental health and suicide hotline
- Improving access to perinatal mental health services
- Introducing a new fund for student well-being to improve wait times and increase access to mental health care at colleges and universities.
- Improving mental health access for veterans
The Conservatives are not proposing a specific transfer to the provinces for mental health but they have pledged to raise the Canada Health Transfer to six per cent annually. They also say they want provinces to set part of that new money aside to fund mental health services.
The Conservatives say that promise would amount to $60 billion in new health care funding over ten years. They predict a million more Canadians would get the mental health treatment they need under this new funding model.
The Conservative plan includes a number of other measures:
- An effort to “encourage” employers to add mental health coverage to their employee benefit plans by covering a quarter of that new cost though a tax credit for the first three years.
- A “pilot program” providing $150 million in grants over three years to non-profits delivering mental health services.
- Changes to the Firearms Act to allow mental health medical professionals the freedom to inform the Chief Firearms Officer if they fear someone they are treating may pose a threat to others.
- A suicide prevention strategy.
- Funding of $1 billion over five years to boost Indigenous mental health and drug treatment programs.
The NDP has not released its full platform yet. The party is pledging to make access to mental health care in Canada free and universally available, although it hasn’t said what that would cost. The NDP’s mental health policy promises announced so far include:
- A plan to introduce universal pharmacare for all Canadians that also would cover drugs required to treat mental illnesses.
- A national perinatal mental health strategy to support struggling parents before and after birth.
- Efforts to partner with Indigenous communities to improve access to mental health and addiction treatment services both on and off reserve.
The Greens have not released their full platform. In the 2019 federal election, they promised to negotiate a Canada Health Accord to prioritize the expansion of mental health and rehabilitation services and to establish a mental health and suicide prevention strategy.
The party also pledged to devote “sufficient resources” to mental health services for Indigenous peoples.
The Bloc Québécois platform does not make specific demands of the federal government on mental health. It calls on Ottawa to boost health transfers to cover 35 per cent of provincial health care costs. The party is also calling for sustainable funding to support healing for residential school survivors.
Stable funding and filling in the gaps
Kennell said the Liberals’ Mental Health Transfer concept has the potential to be “transformative” because under the Canada Health Transfer, it’s hard to track how provinces spend the money.
“Services like therapy, psychotherapy, services ultimately that take place outside of hospitals and doctors’ offices aren’t covered under the traditional Canada Health Transfer,” she said, “This new transfer has the potential to really fill the gap in the mental health care funding sphere.”
Kennell said she also likes the look of the Conservative plan because it includes a number of targeted measures directed at specific problems.
“The approaches taken by the Conservative Party are equally innovative in that they really look at the gaps in the system, who has access to care, who doesn’t, what are the financial barriers in particular to accessing care,” she said.
Pediatric funding and national standards
The people who depend on mental health services in Canada say they want to see a standardized system of care offered to people across the country.
Szpilfogel said that mental health care patients need a system that sees them right through the treatment process, from diagnosis to completion.
“There’s nothing like that. There is no overall support system. There’s no process,” he said.
Watch: One father’s journey to get his daughter mental health treatment:
Grills said access to mental health services varies greatly across the country and the next federal government should set standards of service.
“What measures I might have accessible to me here in Ottawa are completely different than someone in a rural province, or someone who is under 18,” she said.
Grills said she also wants to see funding for mental health services for children — something that the three main parties have so far only mentioned in passing.
“The wait lists for pediatric mental health care can be years long, which completely misses the window for intervention,” she said.
According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, a charity that advocates for mental health, there are 28,000 children and young people waiting to access mental health services.
Sheryl Boswell, executive director of Youth Mental Health Canada, also said more attention needs to be paid to younger Canadians who sometimes have to wait over a year for help.
“That kind of needs-based funding and support in schools and for families is really important,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of support for children in elementary and secondary schools right now, and so it is left to the parents.”