Op-ed: City needs its own mental health and addictions strategy

The most expensive and most coercive options, such as jails and involuntary hospitalization, usually become the net into which people fall

motion tabled by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and Mayor John Tory and passed at this week’s City Council meeting will create a comprehensive mental health and addictions strategy for the city.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Addictions and Mental Health Ontario and Children’s Mental Health Ontario commissioned Ipsos Public Affairs to conduct a survey. It found that more than 80 per cent of Ontarians experiencing increased mental health and addictions challenges as a result of COVID-19.

Usually, the most expensive and most coercive options, such as jails and involuntary hospitalization, become the net into which people fall. 

But the problem is not just one of more money. The problem is also about how money is spent, and where and whether people can find (and access) the supports that do exist. 

A mental health and addiction strategy is needed to make sense of the “system” that is in place, which is not really a system at all, but a variety of hospital and community services. 

For those struggling with mental health issues and addictions, basic needs for food and shelter can also go unmet, which is a trauma in itself, creating a downward spiral. For many, the pandemic has intensified their vulnerability.

But Toronto cannot wait for the province or the federal government to meet the needs of the most diverse city in the world. It’s time to develop our municipal and community-oriented support services to reduce the backlog of the thousands of people waiting for mental health and substance use-related issues. This has been done in Calgary and it has led to increased public engagement and investments by the provincial government.

Although the majority of the funding for mental health and addictions agencies in Ontario is provided by the province, the funds actually flow from the federal government.

In 2019, Toronto City Council asked the federal government to adopt a Mental Health Parity Act. The idea was to meet the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s target of one dollar spent on mental health services for every dollar spent on physical health, as detailed in the report Advancing the Mental Health Strategy for Canada: A Framework for Action (2017–2022). 

The reality, however, is that they are not putting forward a Toronto-specific plan to support local challenges. Now it’s up to the City to create a strategy that will prioritize local residents and the establishment of non-coercive community-based support services.  

Such a strategy should be properly resourced and include dedicated staff and experts accountable to the community.

This newest initiative by City Council could represent a high watermark for Toronto with benchmarked outcomes.

It will be hard work. But it’s work that community mental health advocates are keen to do. Let’s begin.

Jennifer Chambers is executive director of Empowerment Council. Susan Davis is executive director of the Gerstein Crisis Centre. Steve Lurie, is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.


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2 responses to “Op-ed: City needs its own mental health and addictions strategy”

  1. While I have not been personally affected by the opioid addiction/overdose crisis, I have suffered enough unrelenting ACE-related hyper-anxiety to have known, enjoyed and appreciated the great release upon consuming alcohol and/or THC. I further understand the callous politics involved with this most serious social issue: Just government talk about increasing funding to make proper treatment available to low- and no-income addicts, however much it would alleviate their great suffering, generates firm opposition by the general socially and fiscally conservative electorate. Therefore most, if not all, political candidates will typically, tragically avoid this hot potato at election time.

    There’s a preconceived notion that substance (ab)users are but weak-willed and/or have somehow committed a moral crime. Ignored is that such intense addiction usually does not originate from a bout of boredom, where a person repeatedly consumed recreationally but became heavily hooked — and homeless, soon after — on an unregulated often-deadly chemical that eventually destroyed their life and even those of loved-ones.

    Serious psychological trauma, typically adverse childhood experiences, is usually behind a substance abuser’s debilitating lead-ball-and-chain self-medicating. The addiction likely resulted from his/her attempt at silencing through self-medicating the pain of serious life trauma or PTSD. Furthermore, we know that pharmaceutical corporations intentionally pushed their very addictive and profitable opiate pain killers — I call it the real moral crime — for which they got off relatively lightly, considering the resulting immense suffering and overdose death numbers.

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