Latimer: Mental health system study

Access to mental healthcare professionals emerged as an important issue.

A recent survey by the Mood Disorders Society of Canada (MDSC) examined the mental health system in our country to learn where it is working and where improvements could be made.

The pan-Canadian survey was conducted in June and received 2,245 responses. It focused on getting input from Canadians about their thoughts and experiences with the mental healthcare system.

Not surprisingly, access to mental healthcare professionals emerged as an important issue with 91 per cent of respondents reporting it as their top priority for government action. Increased community mental health resources was selected as a top priority by 88 per cent of respondents.

When asked directly, 38 per cent said it took more than a year from when they first sought medical help to receive a diagnosis. In a 2011 survey that number was 35 percen—meaning things have not improved in recent years.

There could be several reasons for delayed diagnosis. Often, mental health conditions can be complex and difficult to diagnose. As a result, it is not always possible for a family doctor to make an accurate diagnosis. Unfortunately, many communities do not have sufficient numbers of mental health professionals and there can be waitlists of many months to see a psychiatrist.

Perhaps most concerning in this survey – a third of those with an undiagnosed mental illness reported that they either ignored their condition or self-medicated.

This finding highlighted the need for improved access to mental health professionals  and support services as well as better medical coverage as many claimed cost barriers in accessing treatment.

Ignoring or denying symptoms or self-medicating with alcohol or other substances will lead to increased difficulty functioning and worse outcomes for people experiencing mental illness. Unfortunately, when facing a long waitlist or expensive treatment costs, many people feel they don’t have a choice.

According to one MDSC official, the findings in this year’s survey show that although there have been some improvements to mental health care in recent years, there are still many changes that need to be made.

In particular, there seem to be significant gaps and shortages in community mental healthcare, which are not being addressed by provincial or federal governments.

In Canada we are fortunate to have a publicly funded healthcare system that attempts to provide everyone with access to necessary resources and health professionals.

Mental healthcare is often seen as the orphan of our medical system – receiving less priority and insufficient resources in spite of the huge cost of untreated mental illness.  In order for our system to improve, we must continue to advocate to all levels of government.


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