Opinion: We need free mental health care in Canada and we need it now

Sep 8 2021, 2:00 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Margaret Eaton, the National CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association

The last 18 months haven’t exactly been awesome. The pandemic has been hard on us, our families and our communities. With more grief and loss, more financial insecurity, more anxiety, loneliness and stress, it’s often felt like too much. Especially for those experiencing racial injustice, discrimination or barriers to accessing mental health care, the pandemic has exposed many aspects of our society and our safety nets that were already unfair, unjust, tenuous or inadequate.    

As we yearn for when things will “get back to normal,” we might stop and ask ourselves, what if normal was what got us here? We don’t yet know the full impact of the pandemic on our mental health, but we know that many people are struggling today and that our mental health system doesn’t work for most people in Canada. 

Pre-pandemic, one in five Canadians experienced a mental illness or mental health issue in any given year and 1.6 million Canadians already had unmet mental health needs. Too many people in Canada seeking mental health care are forced to pay out of pocket or rely on private insurance to get care. In what is supposed to be a universal health care system, only those with means can afford the mental health care they need. 

Cost should never get in the way of care. 

Most of will be touched by mental illness or a substance use problem at some point during our lives. That’s why we’re pushing for a truly universal mental health care system, where Canadians can access mental health supports and services as soon as they need them. A health care system where cost is never a factor. 

Federal elections are moments for us to think about the issues that affect us, our communities and our futures. We need free mental health care and we need it now. Canada needs a mental health care system that takes care of everyone, no matter what, no matter where, no matter who. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), which offers mental health programs, services and supports in 330 local communities, is calling for all federal parties to make mental health a top priority in this election campaign. We want to see significant and increased leadership, resources to close the gaps in our mental health system and make sure every Canadian who needs mental health supports can get them. This must be accompanied by investment in additional supportive and affordable housing for people with mental illnesses and substance use problems to ensure that they have safe places to live as they recover, funding for Indigenous-led mental health services to advance reconciliation and to better support Indigenous communities and funding to enhance access to substance use treatments and supports. If you want to hear how the parties are responding to CMHA’s call, everyone is free to join us for an All-Party Panel on Mental Health on September 10.

The path forward is a nationwide plan to invest directly in communities —not only to treat people in Canada with mental illnesses close to home, but also to prevent mental health crises in the first place.

Everything is not fine—but it was not fine before the pandemic. Perhaps, rather than yearning to “return to normal,” we would be better off redefining what normal should and can be. 

As hard as it has been, the pandemic has given us a gift in this sense; an opportunity for us to reimagine what an improved mental health system could look like.

This is a once-in-a-generation, and possibly once-in-a-century opportunity. Let’s take it. 

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