IMAGE: Genevieve Pizzale
Mental illnesses affect 6.7 million Canadians annually—but how prepared are we as a country to support those who are suffering?
Despite the fact that we talk, now more than ever, about mental illness, it is still stigmatized and misunderstood. Considering 6.7 million Canadians suffer from some sort of mental illness each year, why—when we’re making so many advances in many ways—do we still prioritize mental illness last when it affects so much of our population?
We spoke with Fardous Hosseiny, national director, research and policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), to understand how widespread mental illness is in Canada and where we as a country need to improve to ensure everyone is getting the help that they deserve.
How widespread is mental illness in Canada?
About 1 in 5 Canadians (that’s 6.7 million of us) are affected by mental illness each year. However, this number only includes those who have been formally diagnosed and doesn’t take into account those who suffer from mental illness but are falling through the cracks of a still-problematic system. Out of those diagnosed with mental illness annually, depression and bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorder or addiction, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and PTSD are among the most common.
“In any given week, 500,000 Canadians aren’t able to work due to mental illness,”says Hosseiny. He adds that by 2020, depression will be the leading cause of disability in Canada and that “an estimated $50 billion is lost annually through unemployment, absenteeism and presenteeism,” the latter being when someone suffering from mental illness is showing up to work but is struggling. The most staggering number of them all is that approximately 1.6 million people continue to have their mental illness needs unmet. “Mental illnesses are episodic, but the key is that if it’s untreated, that’s when it’s really disruptive. We know that untreated mental illnesses are only exasperated with time.”
It’s hard to gauge exactly how many Canadians are suffering from a mental illness when there are so many going undiagnosed, however Hosseiny suspects it’s closer to 1 in 4 Canadians (as opposed to 1 in 5) who suffer from mental illness each year. The reason so many Canadians can go undiagnosed comes down to the support systems available, whether on a personal or larger scale. “There’s a huge gap for people who aren’t being addressed when they come out and ask for help,” says Hosseiny. There’s even less access and support for marginalized or impoverished communities.
Where are we missing the mark with support?
When it comes to mental illness, our public health system is still set up in a way that concentrates on treatment versus preventative measures. “We’ve done a lot of great work to tackle the stigma and, as a result, people are coming out and having discussions [and seeking treatment],” says Hosseiny. “But the problem is that the system isn’t ready to respond to that.” While many say Canada has universal health care, it’s really universal medical care as mental health and illness are still not treated in the same way as physical care. “At CMHA, we released a paper called the Mental Health Parity Act, which means that mental health should be valued and treated equally to physical health,” says Hosseiny. “When it comes to dollars, funding, research and addressing the stigma and discrimination, they aren’t on par.” The federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown unprecedented leadership, but due to years of underfunding, greater support is essential. And it’s not just additional funds that we need (though making sure services such as addiction counsel, psychologists and social workers are publicly funded would be a major leap in the right direction). We need to be more strategic about how we’re investing in community mental health, beginning with early intervention. “We don’t wait until stage 4 to treat cancer, so why do we [wait so long] with mental illness?”