Alex Binkley


This should be an election issue!

Mental illness will strike one Canadian in five at some point in their life

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Coming in the middle of the May 2 election campaign, Michael Wilson’s presentation to the Canadian Club of Ottawa got scant media attention compared to the latest utterances of the party leaders.

But mental illness, the topic of Wilson’s address, should be an election issue. A former federal finance minister and a business leader, Wilson is the current honorary chair of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation. In his words, here’s what the party leaders should be talking about.

“You’ve probably heard that one in five Canadians - that is, one in five of us - will experience a mental illness or addiction in our lifetime. But, did you know that mental illness is the No. 1 cause of workplace disability in Canada? Mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion annually. Every single day, 500,000 Canadians are absent from work due to a mental illness or addiction – picture the entire city of Hamilton – off sick today.

“Mental health disability claims have overtaken cardiovascular disease as the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada. Some 7 million Canadians will experience a mental illness this year. By 2020, depression will be the leading cause of disability on the planet.

“When it comes down to it, this means that every single one of us in this room has been or will be affected by a mental illness or addiction – either through an illness of your own or through a family member, colleague or friend. No one is untouched by these diseases – no one – including me.

“Now, as a businessman, the numbers that I started with paint a grim picture of the impact on our economy and our day to day work life. I think it’s safe to say that if each and every day, a number of people equal to the population of Hamilton does not show up for work, we have a productivity problem on our hands.  And this doesn’t include what we call ‘presenteeism’ - those who are showing up at work only to struggle in silence with their illness.

“How about our kids? What about young Canadians whose early development is crucial to success later in life? At any one time in Canada, 800,000 children aged 4 to 17 experience mental disorders causing stress and impairment through to adulthood. If that figure isn’t cause for alarm, let me add that fewer than 24% of those young people will receive the treatment they need. The second leading cause of death amongst young people in this country is suicide. Aboriginal youth face rates that are five to seven times higher than non-aboriginal youth.

‘How about the growing demographic of elderly people and consequently the growing number of cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s? With baby boomers reaching retirement age, we are facing what one might call a tsunami of health care concerns. Diseases of the brain in our elderly population are robbing people of their dignity in their final years, erasing their memories and putting immense pressures on families as their primary caregivers.

“I think we can all agree that the issues of mental illness and addictions are universal and pervasive in our society – affecting children right through to our aging population. 

“So what makes them different than other diseases? There are other diseases that are pervasive, significant, and that touch many of our lives; cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to name a few. But, there is a significant difference between mental illness and the rest of these diseases. There remains a deadly barrier to recovery from a mental illness or an addiction.  I am speaking of a grave social injustice – the issue of stigma and discrimination.

“In a 2008 poll, half of Canadians said they would hide a family member’s mental illness from their friends or colleagues.  Too ashamed to talk about it, Canadians and people right around the globe are more often than not ignoring the issue and suffering in silence. Only a third of Canadians who actually need care ever receive it. 1 in 3! If you’re a child, it’s 1 in 6!”

For Wilson, mental illness is personally. His son committed suicide when he could no longer cope with his depression. “I remember Cameron pleading with us not to tell people that he had been hospitalized for a mental illness. Afraid of being judged by friends and family or fired by employers, Canadians are still too afraid to talk about the most significant health care problem facing us.

“Can you imagine if only one-third of the people diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes received the care they needed?  Would we deny cancer treatment to more than 75% of the kids who needed it? I would venture to say that every inch of that front lawn on Parliament Hill would be occupied by people and their placards calling for change.”

What Wilson wants is for every Canadian to help eradicate the stigma of mental illness.

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