Opinion: BC is underperforming in its mental health and addiction care

Mar 2 2020, 12:04 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Tristan Elliott, TEDx Speaker and the Marketing & Communications Manager at Together We Can, the largest addiction treatment organization in Canada.


If you’re a Canadian with a mental health issue, the chances are that you’d be better off living somewhere other than British Columbia.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2018 less than 50% of British Columbians who experienced a mental health complication had their needs fully met.

Compare that to the national average of 43.8%, and we quickly realize that too many of our fellow citizens are falling through the cracks. Only Ontario joined BC in underperforming the national average in mental healthcare.

New Brunswick topped the list with a 64.1% success rate, while Quebec ranked second best. Proving that a large population is not an excuse for poor performance, Quebec managed to outperform BC by a full 12%. Ouch.

The number of people dealing with mental health issues isn’t small either: over five million Canadians aged 12 and older have some sort of episode each year.

When we dig deeper, a slightly more bleak picture emerges: we have become incredibly proficient at delivering on pharmaceutical or medication needs, at over 85%, whilst sadly falling short on providing therapy and counselling, succeeding less than 35% of the time.

The Socioeconomic Trap

Socioeconomic circumstances remain the number-one predictor of whether or not someone will receive care in our country. Households in the highest quintile of income were the most likely to report their needs being met, at nearly 65%, while the lowest quintile had a good outcome less than half of the time.

To compound the problem, the worse an individual’s economic conditions are, the more likely they are to be without a regular healthcare provider.

With over three-fifths of those who lack a regular healthcare provider having their mental health needs unmet in times of crisis, we begin to understand how vulnerable the poor really are in our system.

Addiction and Overdose

When we move towards addiction and overdose, the data gets even worse for BC.

The province is, unfortunately, in a league of its own in terms of overdose fatalities. Data for the most recent year isn’t out yet, but 2016-2018 tells us everything we need to know about overdose in British Columbia:

Mental health deaths in Canada by Stats Canada data over a three-year period (2016-2018) / Stats Canada

BC is at more than two-and-a-half times the national overdose rate, which is as high as it is largely because of BC in the first place.

We’ve all heard the regularly cited reasons that only partially explain the lofty numbers.

British Columbia has the most hospitable climate, a great economy, and socially liberal policies; therefore, the story goes, it’s understandable why people with issues would want to make this home.

Many of the explanations make sense. Many of the explanations — when combined with the fact that we have a federal system of government and free movement of people — mean that the province can’t, and shouldn’t, be solely blamed.

Yet no explanation makes it any easier to accept the widespread suffering.

Answers and Solutions

In perhaps the most shocking statistic of all, nearly one and four Canadians reported that they preferred to manage their mental health issues on their own; for those who either had their needs partially met or not met at all, “personal circumstances” were cited nearly 80% of the time.

It’d be nice to know which of these was a bigger factor in not receiving care: not knowing what to do and therefore not doing it, or knowing exactly what to do but being too embarrassed or scared to do it.

We know that the stigma remains real and there are arduous issues to overcome.

While we’d never choose to have mental health or addiction issues be ubiquitous in our society like they are right now, it does present the opportunity to make a compelling argument for policy change: this problem is impacting everyone.

This isn’t a talk anyone likes to have, but it’s a conversation we need to be having, and we know that every barrier we break down ensures more people get help.