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OpEd: Ontario’s Mental Health Crisis is Undeniable

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Ontario is in crisis.

This is not a controversial statement by any means as reports of residents of our province lining up in hot spots in Toronto and Peel Region for an opportunity to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine have been widespread. The images of people lined up around tracks and football fields to access a form of healthcare is not something we are accustomed to in Canada.

Vaccines are an important tool to help move us out of the pandemic and toward some semblance of our normal lives.

While difficult to imagine, there will be a time where COVID-19 won’t lead every newscast in our country. Slowly, thanks to vaccines and other public health measures, we are moving toward a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Unfortunately, even before this pandemic comes to an end, a new pandemic is on the horizon.

Back in May, 2020, just a few months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Ipsos Public Affairs Annual Mental Health Index survey commissioned by Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) and Addictions and Mental Health Ontario (AMHO) released some alarming figures. At that time, the survey reported that two-thirds of Ontarians (67%) felt that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 were going to be serious and lasting. Almost three quarters (74%) of respondents felt that Ontarians were experiencing increased mental health and addictions challenges as a result of COVID-19.

Now, one year later, Ontario’s mental health crisis continues to build up.

In a poll released in March, 2021 by Ontario’s division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), almost 80 per cent of Ontarians believe a post-pandemic mental health crisis is inevitable as people report never before seen levels of loneliness and despair due to isolation and provincial lockdown measures.

While many may be seeing these facts and figures for the first time, few are surprised to learn the pandemic has eroded our collective mental well-being.

The public health measures and lockdowns put in place at various time during the pandemic were directed at both keeping people safe as well as managing additional pressures COVID-19 patients would and could place on our hospitals and our overall provincial healthcare infrastructure. Despite the dedication of frontline healthcare heroes who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe, the last 14 months have revealed just how fragile our healthcare system can be.

Similarly, the Ontario’s mental health care system has its own issues with fragility and fragmentation pre-dating the pandemic.

Before the pandemic hit, waitlists to access mental health services were already painfully long. It was not uncommon for an adult in Ontario to wait more than a year to access care. Sometimes, sadly, the wait would extend to two years.

For children and youth, it’s often worse. In January, 2020, two months before the pandemic, CMHO’s ‘Kids can’t wait: 2020 report on wait lists and wait times for child and youth mental health care in Ontario’ stated that children and youth under 18 were waiting as long as two-and-a-half years to receive mental health treatment, and wait lists for services have more than doubled in the past two years.

Remember those images of people lining up around football fields to get a COVID-19 vaccine? Well, in mental health, those lines are nothing new. The difference is we call our lines waitlists and the people on them are out of sight and left to suffer in silence.

Of course, we need greater investment in mental health in our province. Of course, we need consistent and transparent care that is timely and easy to access for those struggling with mental health issues.

We also need you!

Collectively, we have challenged our leaders and decision-makers to be better in the management of the pandemic. When we felt our leaders were missing the mark or not representing our best interests and safety, we challenged them in the form of media asking tough questions, residents writing letters and posting questions and opinions on social media feeds.

The mental health pandemic that’s coming, or arguably already here, needs that same passion, energy and devotion.

The mental health care system was already stressed and stretched before WHO declared a global pandemic. Depression is now the number one disabling illness in the world and the consequences of isolation, job loss and grief faced by our friends, family and neighbours requires action.

As we recognize and even celebrate National Mental Health Week, let’s use our platforms to begin a movement that makes waiting for mental health care unacceptable. We know what’s ahead and we have an opportunity to permanently remove mental health from the shadows of society and position it prominently as a priority and a right of all residents of Ontario.  

Dr. Amer Burhan is a psychiatrist and Physician-in-Chief at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, a specialty mental health hospital in Whitby, Ont.

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