Mental health: Dismissive attitude to treatment must stop

…every day, we turn people away, or place them on long waitlists.

We don’t talk about the real threats to our children.

Most parents worry when their children begin driving. They warn teens about the risks.

In 2011, despite that care and concern, 291 British Columbians died in car crashes.

That same year, 526 people took their own lives—80 per cent more than those killed in car crashes.

Road crashes don’t come close to taking the toll of mental illness and problem substance use. Why don’t we, as a society, urge parents to have serious talks with their children about those risks?

Stigma, in part. No one tells cancer patients to buck up and wish their infirmities away. But people with mental illness routinely face prejudice and a dismissive attitude.

People who have an obvious illness tend to get help. At the least, emergency rooms provide urgent care. Those with a mental illness and substance abuse issues face a much tougher reality.

Joshua Beharry wrote about his experiences in the Vancouver Sun last month. In 2009, at 22, he went to a hospital emergency ward because months of depression had left him increasingly suicidal.

“I spoke to an emergency room doctor and a psychiatric nurse,” he wrote. “They asked if I had a plan to kill myself.” People are only admitted if they have mapped out a specific plan to take their own lives, he learned.

“I didn’t have a plan so I went home,” Beharry recalled.

And a month later, he tried to kill himself.

The ER staff aren’t at fault. They send people away because there are no treatment spaces.

The community social services sector plays a huge role in addressing mental illness and substance abuse. But every day, we turn people away, or place them on long waitlists. Budget freezes and cuts and a lack of integrated responses have created a crisis.

The cost is enormous. A 2010 study estimated the cost to the economy due to lost work days was $50 billion a year. Add the damage to families, the costs of homelessness and health care and the total rises sharply.

Former senator Michael Kirby, the first chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, noted that mental health and substance use represent about 35 per cent of the disease burden in Canada, yet receive about five per cent of the resources.

Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond noted this year that lack of political leadership has left this province with a fragmented, inadequate system of supports for youth facing mental illness.

A new government has the chance to address these serious problems, providing leadership, adequate resources and a collaboration strategy linking health and the social services sectors.

We should make sure that mental health and problem substance use services step out of the shadows.

Michelle Fortin is the executive director of Watari Youth, Family and Community Services and the chair of B.C. ASAP—Addiction Specialists and Allied Professionals. She wrote this article on behalf of the Roundtable of Provincial Social Services Organizations.

 

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