Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Facing mental illness: a 10-step plan for Nova Scotia

What does the face of a person with mental illness look like?

That question is at the heart of this year’s national anti-stigma campaign "Face Mental Illness," which is the theme of Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 5-11). In Canada, one in five people is living with a mental illness. Mental disorders are some of the most disabling medical conditions, with about 70 per cent of them onsetting prior to age 25. They exact a huge negative impact on health, society and our economy. Yet a strong and persistent stigma prevents thousands of adults and youth from accessing and receiving the help they need to get well and say well.

While the scientific understanding and treatment of mental disorders and the awareness of the importance of mental health in all aspects of life have advanced considerably in the past decade, the public perception of people with mental illness has been much slower to change. A recent national survey conducted by the Canadian Medical Association found extremely high rates of stigma against those who suffer from mental disorders, permeating all aspects of Canadian society. This stigma is largely present in our social structures and institutions – including our health, social services, education and justice sectors.

Stigma is essentially the polite word for discrimination. There is no room in our caring society for discrimination against those living with mental illness. There is no reason for those living with mental illnesses to be denied adequate housing or equitable health care or to spend their lives in the shadows.

The recently established Mental Health Commission of Canada has announced that it will be addressing stigma against the mentally ill through a national strategy. However, Nova Scotians should not need to wait until a national strategy is unveiled to begin to address the complex issues that need our attention. We could start with these 10 steps to immediately begin to improve mental health and the care for those who suffer from mental disorders in this province:

1. Establish a consensus that promotion of mental health and recovery from mental disorders should be the framework for the development and delivery of mental health care across the province.

2. Establish a child and youth policy and plan that commit to providing equity in health access to all young people suffering from mental disorders.

3. Enhance funding for treatment of those with mental disorders, basing all interventions on best available scientific evidence.

4. Address youth needs as the cornerstone of mental health promotion and prevention activities. Focus these activities in schools and community organizations and link these to enhanced community based mental health care capacity for young people.

5. Support the creation and distribution of mental health literacy programs to enhance knowledge for the public, professionals and policy-makers alike.

6. Allocate a specific portion of the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation funding for mental health research – especially in areas traditionally receiving little research support.

7. Establish innovative community-based and supported housing that meets the needs of the mentally ill – and link this to the development and delivery of peer support training for those who wish to obtain it.

8. Establish novel competency training programs to upgrade the mental health treatment skills of all health providers – so people with mental disorders can get their care from the same people who look after their diabetes, cancers and heart disease.

9. Establish youth engagement and intervention programs that will prevent young people from ending up in jails, and establish mental health courts for all offenders who are currently rotating through the legal system.

10. Accelerate the process of de-institutionalization of those who have mental disorders and ensure that sufficient acute and long-term care resources are available in usual health care locations instead of stand-alone mental health facilities – thus decreasing the stigma of receiving mental health care.

Societies are judged by how they treat their most vulnerable citizens. Nova Scotians are too good a people to continue ignoring the needs of our brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours because they live with mental illness. It’s time we faced the issue and did ourselves proud.

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