MICHELLE FORTIN: Mental illness, an ignored problem

Suicide is a larger problem than car crashes in B.C.

Most parents worry when their children begin driving. They warn teens about the risks.

In 2011, despite that care and concern, 291 British Columbians died in car crashes.

That same year, 526 people took their own lives – 80 per cent more than those killed in car crashes.

Road crashes don’t come close to taking the toll of mental illness and problem substance use. Why don’t we, as a society, urge parents to have serious talks with their children about those risks? Stigma, in part.

No one tells cancer patients to buck up and wish their infirmities away. But people with mental illness routinely face prejudice and a dismissive attitude.

People who have an obvious illness tend to get help. At the least, emergency rooms provide urgent care. Those with a mental illness and substance abuse issues face a tougher reality.

Joshua Beharry wrote about his experiences in a Vancouver newspaper last month. In 2009, at 22, he went to a hospital emergency ward because months of depression had left him increasingly suicidal.

“I spoke to an emergency room doctor and a psychiatric nurse,” he wrote. “They asked if I had a plan to kill myself.”

People are only admitted if they have mapped out a specific plan to take their own lives, he learned.

“I didn’t have a plan so I went home,” Beharry recalled.

And a month later, he tried to kill himself. ER staff aren’t at fault. They send people away because there are no treatment spaces.

The community social services sector plays a huge role in addressing mental illness and substance abuse.

But every day, we turn people away, or place them on long wait lists. Budget freezes and cuts and a lack of integrated responses have created a crisis

The cost for it all is enormous. A 2010 study estimated the cost to the economy due to lost work days was $50 billion a year. Add the damage to families, the costs of homelessness and health care and the total rises sharply.

Former senator Michael Kirby, the first chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, noted mental health and substance use represent about 35 per cent of the disease burden in Canada, yet receive about five per cent of the resources.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, noted this year that lack of political leadership has left this province with a fragmented, inadequate system of supports for youth facing mental illness.

A new government has the chance to address these problems, and provide adequate resources and a collaboration strategy linking health and social services sectors.

We should make sure mental health and problem substance use services step out of the shadows.

Michelle Fortin is chairwoman of the B.C. Addiction Specialists and Allied Professionals.

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