Mental Illness in Ontario: Prevalence, Infrastructure, and Awareness

By Hasan Hawilo

Image credit to ewitsoe on Flickr .

October 6-12, 2019, is the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness’s Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). This week-long campaign is dedicated to raising awareness and fostering discussion around the topic of mental health. In the spirit of this initiative, it is imperative that we as medical students educate ourselves on this issue that affects our health, as well as the well-being of our friends, families, and future patients. Written by our very own Hasan Hawilo, here is an article that highlights some ideas about mental health and illness care in Ontario.

How Common Is Mental Illness in University? 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental illness represents 14% of the global burden of disease. Though estimates vary, up to one-third of Canadians have their lives disrupted by the negative effects of mental illness each year. Reluctance to seek professional support is common, especially in young men. Furthermore, the lifetime likelihood of a Canadian experiencing mental illness or disorder is now estimated to be as high as one in threeUniversity students are even worse off: almost one in two were so depressed in the last twelve months that they found it difficult to function, and more than one in four report feeling that things were hopeless during the last two weeks. The number of students seeking mental health treatment continues to increase at universities across the country, and the outcry regarding long wait times to access university mental health services is nothing new in Ontario. Those seeking support from the University of Torontothe University of Western Ontariothe University of Waterloo, and McMaster University have reported that their mental health teams are understaffed, ill-equipped, and under-funded. Ultimately, these students are often referred to other mental health specialists in their community – facing the choice between paying out-of-pocket or having their mental illness go untreated. 

Lastly, when it comes to medical professionals, things aren’t any better. Medical students are at an increased risk of being diagnosed with mental illness. Up to two-thirds of physicians may rely on self-treatment as the only form of care for their mental disorder. All of these statistics, taken together, emphasize that mental illness is becoming increasingly prevalent. If you’re dealing, coping, or struggling with mental health challenges, you are not alone. Consider, as an analogy, that your brain and body operate under the same fundamental principles as an engine. When something goes wrong with your car, you don’t second-guess making an appointment with an expert in the field of automotive repairs. If you’re struggling with mental health, it only makes sense to see an expert in the field of mental health. 

This is all to say that if you think you need help, give thought to reaching out to health services in the London and Windsor communities. 

New Healthcare Infrastructure

Put simply, mental health in Canada is expensive and under-resourced. According to a 2013 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the direct annual costs of mental illness (including treatment and support services) across the country are $50 billion. Soon after the 2018 provincial elections, the Ford government announced a $1.9 billion investment in mental health funding over the next 10 years. Though this investment represents a $330-million-a-year cut from the previous government’s budget and has been criticized by health advocates in Thunder Bay as disingenuous, funding ultimately represents a step in the right direction. In January 2019, the Ford government announced $633 million in funding dedicated to the development of two new Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) buildings in Ontario, thereby introducing 235 new inpatient beds. These two additions to the Queen Street West Complex in Toronto are expected to open in 2020.

Bell Let’s Talk: Breaking Down the Stigma?

It is encouraging to note that the social perception of mental illness is not what it once was. Today, 96% of Canadians consider their mental health to be at least as important as their physical health, and 42% of Canadians have discussed mental health concerns with others. These data optimistically suggest that awareness initiatives such as American rapper Logic’s suicide hotline song are having a positive impact on people’s willingness to have frank discussions about their well-being and to seek help. However, social stigma continues to have a profound effect on the experience of mental illness in Canada; the Canadian Association of Mental Health reports that social stigma prevents 40% of Canadians affected by depression and anxiety from pursuing professional help. 

So, what impact do awareness campaigns have on the average consumer? Bell Let’s Talk Day, arguably one of thelargest and most well-known mental health awareness campaigns in the world, has been criticized for its lack of inclusive campaign advertisinglack of substantive discussion around mental health problems, and potential conflicts of interestUniversity of Windsor’s Jasmine Vido does an excellent job of highlighting the public’s ambivalent reaction to the campaign. Unfortunately, there is a lack of rigorous studies evaluating the effects of mental literacy campaigns on the public. Though promising research from other mental health initiatives, both in Canada and abroad, suggests that these mental health awareness strategies encourage patients to reach out for help, it is ultimately difficult to make meaningful and generalizable conclusions about individual campaigns. From a fiscal standpoint, since 2010, Bell’s initiative has raised over $100 million in new funding for mental health. Bell’s intentions are unquestionably profit-oriented, and its mental health campaign doubles as a spectacular marketing tactic – but so what? There are few players in the field of mental health investment. Shouldn’t a for-profit company that represents its shareholders benefit from their social good? Unlike Netflix’s original series 13 Reasons Why, which has been criticized by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) as a potentially harmful depiction of suicide, Bell Let’s Talk has garnered support from the MHCC. Until we can identify sustainable solutions that better address the complex issue of mental health stigma, Bell Let’s Talk may serve a valuable purpose.

Author: Hasan Hawilo

Hasan Hawilo completed his B.Sc. at McMaster University. He is passionate about grassroots volunteer organizations that address the social determinants of health and excited to learn more about how politics interacts with stakeholder interests to inform healthcare policy.