How often do you say or think to yourself, “I should really focus on getting healthier.” The last time this ran through your mind, were you thinking about physical health – like exercise and eating habits – or other health factors, like your mood or mindset? Most Albertans have been taught the importance of physical health, even learning about the ‘Food Pyramid’ in elementary school. When Albertans need physical treatment, we receive financial coverage through the healthcare system. Physical health is and should be a priority to government health spending. But what about mental health? We must take an honest look at how much emphasis is placed on mental health, resource accessibility and the reduction of mental illness stigma, and evaluate if it’s really enough.
Physical health, mental health or both?
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Alberta Division firmly believes mental health should receive the same amount of accessibility and funding that is provided to physical health initiatives and services – and we aren’t alone. “Eighty-five per cent of Canadians say mental health services are among the most underfunded services in our health-care system—and the majority agree (86%) that the Government of Canada should fund mental health at the same level as physical health.” (CMHA National, 2018)
CMHA’s approach involves positive mental health promotion (MHP), by focusing on mental health in communities, individuals, workplaces and schools through targeted and broad interventions. “While most efforts to support mental health focus on symptoms management and/or the treatment of addiction or illness, MHP takes a proactive approach, focusing on the early and continuous development of positive mental health.” (CMHA National, 2019)
Mental health access for marginalized Albertans
Cultivation of positive MHP requires acknowledgement and rectification of systemic racism within Alberta’s healthcare system towards Indigenous, Black and additional non-majority communities. This should include social spending investments to address mental illness root causes, including poverty, trauma and marginalization. “MHP efforts must recognize the unique and often intersecting experiences of non-majority and vulnerable communities.” (CMHA National, 2019)
Non-majority Albertans deserve mental health care that is culturally safe and relevant, and mental health organizations should work to include services for everyone. MHP programs and policy development should be done in consultation with newcomers, women, members of the LGBT2SQ+ communities, low-income communities, rural communities, communities without reliable Internet, people with disabilities, older adults, youth and Indigenous communities. (CMHA National, 2019)
Mental health access without barriers
The Canada Health Act (1984) governs Canadian health care and has the goal to “protect, promote and restore the physical and mental well-being of residents of Canada and to facilitate reasonable access to health services without financial or other barriers.” (CMHA National, 2018) Despite this goal, mental health and wellness does not currently receive the same focus as physical health care. Public funding is only provided to treatments labelled as “medically necessary,” which are often administered in a hospital. Community services such as psychotherapy, counselling, and peer support are not included in Alberta Health Services coverage. In fact, Canadians spend almost a billion dollars yearly on counselling services —30 per cent out of pocket. (CMHA National, 2018)
When you visit your family doctor for a physical check-up or go to a specialist for specific physical health care, you expect financial coverage for these services and for your doctor and specialist to work together to provide you with thorough and complete care. Canadians deserve the same access to publicly funded mental health and addiction services. “Up to 80 per cent of Canadians rely on their family physicians to meet their mental health care needs, but those services are limited. Evidence-based health care provided by addiction counsellors, psychologists, social workers and specialized peer support workers is the foundation of the mental health response in other G7 countries, but these services are not guaranteed through our public system.” (CMHA National, 2018)
What CMHA believes
CMHA believes mental health-care should publicly funded and accessible to every Albertan, with services offered by psychologists, Indigenous healers, counsellors, peer support workers and other allied professionals. (CMHA National, 2018) Mental health promotion must receive equal emphasis as physical health. This will result in specialized care to meet the needs of vulnerable and non-majority populations throughout Alberta. (CMHA National, 2018)
CMHA’s five-point mental health parity proposal
CMHA has created a five-point parity proposal we believe the Government of Canada should legislate for positive MHP – ensuring mental health is as accessible and valued as physical health and treatment.
Publicly fund evidence-based therapies
Mental health-care services offered by psychologists, Indigenous healers, counsellors, peer support workers and other allied professionals should be folded into primary care and be publicly funded.
Improve the quality of care through a continuum of integrated services
Family physicians should be linked to other health-care professionals, with services such as housing and employment supports, addictions and trauma-informed interventions and training and disability support services also integrated and available.
Invest in promotion, prevention and early intervention
Investments should be made into mental health promotion and mental illness prevention such as parenting programs, antibullying programs and workplace mental health initiatives.
Address stigma and discrimination and ensure equitable access
There should be no barriers to mental health treatment access. Discrimination within the institutional structure of health care must be eliminated to ensure all Canadians – regardless of gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, race, income, language and citizenship – have access to appropriate care.
Research mental illness and evaluate health outcomes
More funding should be allocated to mental health research to develop an evidence base for treatment effectiveness and improve the quality of Canadian mental health services.
(CMHA National, 2018)
You can read CMHA’s full five-point mental health Canadian legislation proposal here and the entire mental health promotion report here.
If you or a loved one is experiencing mental health distress during this time, please call 211 (Alberta only) or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642.
CMHA National. (2018, September 14). Mental Health in the Balance: Ending Health Care Disparity in Canada. [Webpage]. Retrieved October, 2020, from: https://cmha.ca/ending-health-care-disparity-canada
CMHA National. (2018, September). Ending the health care disparity in Canada, Full Report. [PDF]. Retrieved October, 2020, from: https://cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/CMHA-Parity-Paper-Full-Report-EN.pdf