Mental Health and Recovery are the Missing Election Issues

Ken Harrison
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jun. 09 2014

Dr. Ken Harrison is a staff physician at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. His patient, Paolo Scotti, received a 2014 Transforming Lives Award, which honours those who face mental illness and addiction with dignity and perseverance. To see a video about Paolos story, visit

Twenty years ago, as a young physician, I met a fractured young man who changed my life. Paolo Scotti was a promising student studying for his Masters degree in chemistry. His brother-in-law came with him to that first appointment as Paolo couldnt tell his own story; in fact, he couldnt complete a phrase due to a severe thought disorder.

This was at the beginning of my career in psychiatry, a time when I was filled with great hope and optimism. I left that first meeting with very little optimism. I remember feeling overwhelmed at the mountain in front of Paolo, in front of his family, in front of me.

What a climb it has been. Slow and steady, Paolo has set about rebuilding his life. With medication and therapy, he got control of his disorder and retrained for a job he excels at. He has a loving family and a network of friends and colleagues. I meet with Paolo regularly at one of the busiest outpatient schizophrenia clinics in Toronto and I marvel: he is a testament to the value of ongoing care and support in preventing the debilitating effects of complex mental illness.

Paolos story is not what we typically read about when we see mental illness in the news but it is a common one. While the headlines rarely tell the story of recovery, we know that with the right care and supports recovery is possible.

Weve come a long way in awareness building since I began my career. Were seeing a lot more openness to the issue of mental health. But, it strikes me that the biggest health and social-justice issue of our time is taking a back seat during this election campaign.

While mental illnesses constitute 15 per cent of the burden of disease in Canada, they receive less than 6 per cent of health-care dollars. Mental health may not fulfill the requirements of the classic sound bite for the purposes of a political speech, but you dont have to look too closely to see its connection to the issues that do fill the airwaves. When 500,000 full-time employees are not able to go to work in any given week due to mental illness, we have a serious economic issue. There is no job, no education and no health without mental health. Paolo will tell you that in a heartbeat.

Sure, there has been progress. The creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada has ignited a national conversation and invested in some important initiatives particularly around stigma, housing and workplace mental health. Provincial governments, including Ontario, have announced mental health strategies. But changing the conversation about recovery and having the courage to invest in what needs to be done is where the rubber hits the road.

The hospital where I work the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health knows it has to lead the country in best practices: streamlining access to care, investing in research and driving the social change our patients deserve. CAMH has set out to raise $200 million through its Breakthrough Campaign, which will fund much-needed improvements to help more people recover faster. This is the largest fundraising campaign for a mental health hospital in Canada and its time has come.

Living with mental illness is never a clear path forward. As mental health professionals, we dont unblock an artery or reset a bone. We work with symptoms that arise from the disordered brain. Its complex, and involves great stores of trust and empathy, not to mention the web of social supports that contribute to sustained mental health. The very basics of a healthy life: a job, a home, a friend.

This election all party leaders should be giving us their plan for improving the mental health of Ontarians. There is simply too much at stake. Im going to ask that they do it for Paolo and for each and every citizen that lives with these illnesses and hopes for a better tomorrow.

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