End ‘two-tier’ mental health care system, Michael Kirby urges

This article was posted in the Ottawa Citizen on February 10, 2016 by Blair Crawford. It discusses the viewpoints of a retired senator Michael Kirby, who is the founding chair for Partners for Mental Health and a former chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Kirby talks about the great lack of mental health services for youth in Canada.


Michael Kirby

“Services for children and youth are the worst part of the mental health system. The scarcity of services and trained personnel are worse in youth than in any other part.”

Recently, there has been an increase in demand for mental health services, but with little government response. For instance, the Citizen had reported a recent case of a “suicidal 17-year-old girl who spent eight nights at the Queensway Carleton Hospital without ever getting a bed in the hospital’s 25-bed mental health unit where she could receive treatment.” Depositphotos_6270264_XS.jpg

Not only is it hard just to reach out to these services, mental healthcare is also very expensive. For instance, therapy is not funded by public health care and often costs around $125 or $150 per hour. Therefore, only the few families who can afford it will have access to this private care. Kirby refers to this as “the ultimate example of two-tier medicine”.

He says: “As a Canadian I find that offensive. Why should the child sitting next to my grandchild in school not get help because their parents or grandparents can’t afford it? That’s not the Canadian way.”

Overall, it has become very evident that many children and youth are not being provided with the mental health care services they need. Mental illnesses often start out as minor issues, and can worsen overtime if left untreated.

“The hospital situation and the emergency room situations obviously need to be improved, but a big focus needs to be on getting to kids who get problems before they are so serious that they need to go to a hospital or an emergency room.”

I have chosen to talk about this article because it is a topic which is of much personal concern to me. Last year, my younger sister, at only 9 years old, began showing several symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As soon as we noticed these symptoms, we wanted to get help right away. We found out that in order to see or talk to a psychiatrist, we had to first get a referral from our family doctor. Our family doctor was on leave at the time however, so we could not turn to her. We then tried to get a referral from a doctor at a walk-in clinic instead.

What was very frustrating was that the people at the office were not listening to us when we were insisting that this referral was of high priority and must be sent as soon as possible. They were being very unclear about when the referral would actually get sent out, saying things like “a couple of days, weeks” which was very unsettling for us. After this process, we had to wait a matter of months to actually manage to get an appointment. All the while, my sister’s symptoms were getting worse and worse. Every time she had an ‘attack’ we kept having to depend on the children’s mental health crisis line. However, how much help can they possibly give us, when they have never met her and do not know her history, etc.? It became a bother to explain the whole situation to them every time we called (since a different person was on the line each time).

Her OCD got to a point where she was unable to go to school anymore because of her fears and anxieties. Yet, the school was reluctant to help us because we had no official diagnosis! How frustrating is that?! There was nowhere to turn, and all because of the lack of fast mental health care services for children. It wasn’t until her OCD got to such a bad point that it was stopping her from being able to function in daily life that we got an appointment. When I think back, I still wonder about how much easier my sister’s recovery would have been if only she had gotten access to her psychiatrist earlier. Ever since then, this is an issue that has troubled me greatly.

I agree with all the claims that Michael Kirby has made and I am hoping to see changes in the system as soon as possible. Why is it so hard for children and youth to get the help they need? Why is this demand being ignored?

This article relates greatly to last week’s topic of mental health in our course. f3766f876d143ea85bd35fb7b63cabaf731c5493We have learned from the reading ‘The Mental Health Crisis on Campus’, that the stigma regarding mental health has decreased, and that mental health awareness is continuously increasing.

I have noticed the greater awareness of mental health issues as well. Many schools are taking the initiative to spread awareness about mental illnesses for youth. There is also Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign, which encourages people to be able to talk about mental health issues. Kirby comments on this as well, and links it to the past increase in awareness about breast cancer. He says:

“It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the Globe and Mail could even use the word ‘breast’ in the paper. You can’t talk about breast cancer if you can’t use the word breast. Today, not one of my grandkids over the age of 10 doesn’t know what the pink ribbon means. And what’d that do? It increased the public demand for breast cancer services and the government responded. The problem is that the public demand for mental health services has increased but governments have not responded.”

We cannot just improve in one way and take no action to support it. All we get from that is more people who are aware of their mental illness but do not have the access to the health care they need.

Yes awareness has increased, and this is great! I am so glad we are moving forward with this. However, the next step forward must be taken as well in order for us to solve this issue. As Joel Barker said “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”

There are so many heartbreaking cases where the mental health care system has failed individuals. Several are mentioned in this recent article: “I had to fight for her life because no one else would‘: Readers share their experiences with mental health care system”. I was absolutely shocked at how many horrible cases there were. 

How many more children have to be hurt in order for us to see real change?



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