Next steps for a Canadian Mental Health Strategy

In my visit to Ottawa, I was encouraged by the significant steps the Canadian Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Illness has made this year.

CAMIMH is an alliance of 19 national mental health organizations including health care providers, including psychiatrists, occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers, and organizations like the Schizophrenic Society of Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and the Mood Disorders Association. Their mandate is to put mental health on the national agenda to aid mental health consumers and their families in receiving appropriate access to care and support.

This is CAMIMH's 10th anniversary of its Faces of Mental Illness campaign to reduce stigma and build awareness about mental health. This year is the first time that the Faces of Mental Illness campaign attained the opportunity for the Faces and CAMIMH representatives to meet jointly with Parliamentarians personally during Mental Illness Awareness Week, and for the first time, to be invited to Rideau Hall for a roundtable discussion with the Governor General and his spouse. The five Faces were also invited to share their personal stories with Her Excellency Sharon Johnston in an informal chat.

CAMIMH put forward three major recommendations at Parliament Hill, including:

1. Increase the proportion of health spending that is devoted to mental health from seven to nine percent.

2. The federal government could lead by example and improve mental health policy and deliver services within areas where they have direct responsibility, such as First Nations, Inuit and Metis, National Defence, Veteran Affairs, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Corrections.

3. The federal government could create psychologically effective workplaces for their employees, which means better productivity and savings of tax dollars and less disability claims and sick leave due to mental health issues.

John Higenbottam, co-chair of CAMIMH, stated that it's not enough to just increase federal spending in the area of mental health, but the monies need to be directed into the right services, such as housing and community supports for people with mental illness. I would include approachable access to care for youths and adults experiencing mental health problems. Of course, we need to spend money on acute care for example, but if we can use preventative measures to aid people before they are in crisis and keep people well after they leave hospital, we remove a portion of the excessive demand and expense on front-line services like emergency rooms and police intervention.

Fred Phelps, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Social Workers, stated, "The Government of Canada has the opportunity to both lead by example in areas of direct federal responsibility as well as to coordinate shared accountability through the Canada Health and Social Transfers." (source)

Currently, when federal monies are transferred to the provinces, it's up to the provinces how health dollars are spent. But by listening to CAMIMH's message, hearing from the Faces firsthand, and reviewing the national mental health strategy created by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the federal government could take the lead and work with provincial governments, provincial health authorities and mental health organizations (within CAMIMH as well) in a unified approach to tackle mental health issues, channeling money to specific needs in communities across Canada.

In our discussion at Rideau Hall, after hearing some of the barriers and problems people with mental illness confront, Her Excellency Sharon Johnston posed the question, "Where do we go from here?"

We need to look at the dollars to be saved with the development of healthier workplaces and preventative and ongoing community support for people with mental illness. If the government can see the economic value of these improvements, they are more likely to take action, according to Laurie Pinard, one of this year's Faces who worked in politics for over a decade.

Instead of different mental health organizations duplicating services and competing for funding amongst themselves, perhaps they can strategize and come up with a plan, each taking responsibility for different aspects of care, but also having open communication of innovations and better ways of doing things.

I hope this event built some momentum starting in Ottawa which I hope will filter down or at least be at the forefront of issues in the House of Commons.

An Excellent Day in Ottawa

October 2nd, 2012, I woke up at 5:30 am, packed my bags at the hotel and later met my group to walk to Parliament Hill. We went through security, got our ID tags and had breakfast in the Parliamentary Restaurant. Met MP Olivia Chow from Toronto and Minister Peter Gordon MacKay. Chatted with two young aides who work with politicians. I asked one of them if he had seen The Ides of March, starring George Clooney. He said that it was horrendous and gave a very bad view of politics and politicians. I laughed. "I'm sure it's not really like that," I said.

I had to leave the breakfast presentation early to take part in an interview with Dr. Karen Cohen, the chair of Mental Illness Awareness Week. The CTV Canada AM interview was with host Marcie Ien who was in another studio in Toronto. So I didn't actually see her, but only heard her voice through a speaker in my left ear. It was very exciting to be on national TV. They showed my artwork and featured my book.

Walking back to Centre Block, I was stopped by a fellow who worked for a pharmaceutical company who recognized me and gave me his card. Ah, a bit of stardom.

After that I met with Dr. John Higenbottam, co-chair of the Canadian Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Illness, and MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay (Delta-Richmond East) to discuss CAMIMH's message and recommendations. I gave her a copy of my memoir which she said she would read. She congratulated us on the good work we are doing to reduce stigma.

I then met the other Faces and a few others to be in a photo-op with Bob Rae, the leader of the Liberal Party. He shared with us and us with him.

After a buffet lunch, I met with MP Don Davies (Vancouver- Kingsway, BC) and Meagan Hatch. Davies was genuinely interested in what we had to say. We took some photos and I was introduced to Thomas Mulcair, the Leader of the Opposition. Davies gave us a bit of a tour. He was glad to receive my book too and called me a 'double threat,' artist and writer.

After a brief press conference in the Charles Lynch Room, we took a short break then went through security again to observe part of a session in the House of Commons. When someone gave a speech, there was applause, but I did notice a bit of jeering.

On the Centre Block steps, I was stopped by another woman who said she had seen me on Canada AM that morning.

A group of us took taxis and arrived at Rideau Hall. The 5 Faces and Dr. Cohen met with the Governor General's wife Sharon Johnston and a couple of her aides. Her Excellency wanted to know what we would say to parents or caregivers of people with mental illness. Each of us shared our story and I gave her a copy of my memoir too. I told her my father Gordon Yuen was knighted and had received the Order of St. John in 2004, before he passed away.

We then met the Governor General David Lloyd Johnston and other people connected with CAMIMH. We had a photo outside then were seated in a dining area for a roundtable discussion about mental health issues and where do we go from here.

The meeting went overtime, so I was worried about catching my flight back to Vancouver. Chantal and I were to fly out at the same time. We were excused to catch our flights and Her Excellency hugged us goodbye. We waited for the taxi which finally came and headed off to the airport. Once I arrived, I nervously stood in the security check lineup for 15 minutes. The flight was delayed so I was at the gate in plenty of time.

I got into Vancouver close to 10 pm. All in all, it was a very exciting, wonderful experience.