By Jim Coyle
Twenty-one pages. That’s all it took to describe unspeakable human pain, a problem deeper and wider than even seasoned MPPs imagined, and to make 23 recommendations that could go a long way to improving and saving lives.
To optimistic eyes, the report Thursday by the Ontario Legislature’s select committee on mental health and addictions might just be the most influential bit of short prose since the Gettysburg Address.
It started with images from the stories MPPs were told by men and women across the province. Parents sleeping by the door to bar a son from sneaking out to buy drugs. A husband who was in the room when his wife committed suicide.
Committee members said they were “changed by what we have heard.” As a result, they worked in the kind of collaborative way the Legislature seldom sees.
In many ways, it was a model of how MPPs — talented enough to run businesses, schools, law offices in private life — can be put to work in a fulfilling way.
“I can’t think of one occasion when party politics entered the equation,” said chair Kevin Flynn.
Up front, the report bluntly stated the obvious. Ontarians wait too long for treatment, don’t get the right treatment, don’t get enough treatment and frequently suffer in silence.
Seriously ill people are often turned away from emergency departments, or released from hospital with no treatment plan or before their condition has stabilized.
There’s vast regional inequity in service. Adolescents fall through the gap between programs for children and adults. The system has no real place for those with autism or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
“It often takes a crisis to accomplish a major social or political change,” the committee said. “We are convinced that this crisis has arrived.”
Basically, there’s no coherent mental health and addiction system in Ontario, the report said.
So it urged the creation of an umbrella organization, Mental Health and Addictions Ontario, to ensure a single body is responsible for designing and managing one.
It said all mental-health services — for all ages — should be consolidated under the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.
Supportive housing is fundamental, it said. There’s a huge role for enhanced peer-support services. And better training is needed for health care professionals.
Liberal MPP Dr. Helena Jaczek recalls spending “a couple of weeks on a psychiatric ward” in medical school in the ’70s, seeing only extreme cases.
When she began practice, she could stitch cuts like a seamstress and diagnose acute thyrotoxicosis, but was concerned about her skills in mental health.
Family doctors need good assessment tools, she said, to recognize and act quickly to meet needs.
“What we did hear over and over is that early intervention — especially with children — is absolutely key.”
The news conference itself was something of a mental-health break for denizens of Queen’s Park. It was a tonic to see MPPs from all three parties standing like brothers and sisters in arms, promising to pressure their caucuses to ensure their work is not wasted.
As Jaczek said, the current state of affairs arose because “it’s a difficult issue . . . and people tend to avoid what’s difficult to do.”
If incentives other than decency and compassion are needed, there’s the huge “cost of not doing anything,” Liberal MPP Flynn said.
“The cost to the economy right now is about $6 billion a year as a result of mental-health issues that are unresolved.”
For too long, he said, “we, as a society, have given governments the right or ability not to deal with this issue.”
At a guess, there are at least nine MPPs determined to make that change.
Jim Coyle writes on provincial affairs.