What must we do for mental health?

According to Health Canada, 20 per cent of all Canadians, regardless of their race, sex, education or income level will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

According to Health Canada, 20 per cent of all Canadians, regardless of their race, sex, education or income level will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

The hardest-hit group of Canadians that will deal with mental illness are the poor.

Poorer Canadians are most likely to suffer from depression. Furthermore, persons with a serious diagnosed mental illness have a 70 to 90 per cent unemployment rate and are considered some of Canada’s “hardest to house” individuals, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information.

The good news is that we no longer lock away the mentally ill in asylums.

The bad news is that since we started to de-institutionalize patients from these facilities about 30 years ago, we have not developed enough of the promised support systems that were supposed to be present in the community.

Family and some private halfway houses have filled some of the gaps in service, but generally speaking there are not enough services available to truly help people and families dealing with mental illness.

Instead, hospitals and the justice system have had to step in to deal with acute issues linked to crime and medical crises, but the education, prevention, support and family support that is needed in the long term, continues to be lacking.

The demand for mental health services is growing at an increasing rate.

The Yukon government projects that, by 2018, 36 per cent of the population, will be over the age of 50.

When significant portions of the population ages, dementia rates will increase. There is already a long waiting list to get into care facilities in Whitehorse and no plans to build any more in the near future – and people who are waiting most often take up expensive acute-care beds at the hospital. So what should we do?

Maybe building more care facilities is not the answer – after all, a whopping 45 per cent of Canadian seniors in care homes suffer from depression. Perhaps we should investigate what is done in other jurisdictions. Multilevel care/housing facilities are one answer but there are many other models to examine.

There are good mental health programs being developed all over Canada.

In 2010, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Sun Life Financial released the first Canadian Mental Health and High School curriculum guide. It helps teachers and students increase their understanding of mental health and mental health disorders.

Ottawa is developing a pan-Canadian strategy to tackle mental health in prisons.

In answer to a survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association and Desjardins Financial Security, it was found that 89 per cent of Canadians find that their working environment is increasingly stressful.

A study published in the journal Chronic Diseases in Canada estimated that the Canadian economy loses $30 billion each year in direct and indirect costs related to mental health issues.

According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second leading cause of disability by 2020, behind only cardiovascular disease.

In response, the Canadian Workers Compensation Board has launched a series of public and workplace education programs that teach about how to deal with stress and the sometimes consequent depression.

This is a good thing.

We can use these programs here in the Yukon. We have to do something. Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15 to 24 year olds.

We have one of the highest alcoholism rates in the nation and things are not getting any better.

Families of people with mental illnesses are tired – and even though they do have the experience and the knowledge needed, many do not have the energy to advocate for themselves, let alone examine and work through the issues.

The costs for dealing with mental health patients at Whitehorse General Hospital is going up and up and up. The other reality is that although services may be lacking here in Whitehorse, they are almost non-existent in our Yukon communities.

Just over two years ago the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition held a meeting to set priorities for the organization. The issue that was moved forward was the issue of homelessness and affordable housing.

Mental Health was also a high priority of the coalition and now the time has come to look at this issue. Mental health in the Yukon is a large, complicated and important issue. There are some major gaps in services here and there are some programs that are relatively successful.

Come to our brainstorming session on Mental Health services in the Yukon. We will be meeting from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Whitehorse United Church at 606 Main Street on Thursday November 25th to do an initial survey of what is out there and not out there, in the way of services for people with mental health or mental illness.

From this meeting, a list of identified issues will be generated and distributed to invited organizations and individuals who attended the meeting.

Then, on January 6th, also from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Whitehorse United Church, we will meet again to prioritize the issues that need to be dealt with by service providers and try to set the next steps for this exercise.

After this meeting, the Yukon Anti Poverty Coalition will once again develop a report of the proceedings and make that generally available.

Please attend.

Sue Edelman is a member of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, which provided this column.