Why the world must pay attention to the $2.1 billion Ontario pledged towards mental health

Written by Alicia Raimundo, OYW Ambassador & mental health campaigner.

It had been three years since we’d first started talking to officials about repairing the mental health system, eight years since I’d begun my career as a mental health campaigner, and nearly 16 years since I’d tried to take my life.

So I don’t mind admitting I was fighting back the tears last month as I stood on stage behind Premier Kathleen Wynne as an invited guest and heard her promise $2.1 billion to repair Ontario’s patched up mental health system. $2.1 billion!

I knew that something big was happening because it was a packed room at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and lots of TV cameras were present. But even people that had been involved in mental health for a long time were talking maybe $200-300 million. We were all very shocked.

My reaction was one of hope.

When I heard the announcement, for the first time in my life I had hope that we could actually make a mental health system that works. For the first time I thought maybe there is a way we could actually stop this, maybe there is a way we could turn the tide and get in front on this issue.

Hope was what I was what I realised I needed after trying to commit suicide.

I woke up in the hospital and was greeted by an older lady who took my hand and said to me “From one crazy person to another, you'll need this!” and placed a simple silver necklace in my hand. On it was a charm and the charm read “Hope”. That gesture taught me that people with mental illness are human and the way we talk about mental illness is wrong because even though she was sick she gave me back the one thing that I needed - hope.

I became a campaigner and I wrote a book of my mental health experiences, Red Carnation, which has been distributed to every eight-grade student in Canada

But in the eight years of my campaigning career I have never felt like I felt when Kathleen Wynne announced the $2.1 billion. Because as somebody who has attempted suicide and who lives with anxiety and depression and who has been to 14 funerals of death by suicide, it can really get to you when you keep seeing these mental health pilot projects and band aid solutions for huge systemic problems.

mental health, ontario, kathleen wynne, alicia raimundo, suicide, billion, healthcare, policy, canada, mental health,

Alicia, standing in the bottom left of the photo, was invited to the press conference where the announcement was made. 

And that’s what the history of mental health policy has looked like.

Canada, like a lot of first world countries, has had a broken mental health system for a long time and always just wants to put band-aids on the wounds rather than putting in the money and effort to rebuild it. This money can allow us the space and time to fix a lot of the issues.

One out of three people who need mental health services will get treatment. Why? Because although more Canadians live with mental health issues than cancer and heart disease combined, we only receive 8% of the funding. Until now.

Alicia spoke at the OYW 2016 Summit in Ottawa about her mental health advocacy.

I really respect Kathleen for making the biggest investment in mental health in Canadian history. I have met her a few times. As a gay premier, with kids who are indigenous, mental health issues might be closer to her than people maybe give her credit for.

Some reports have noted that there is an election coming and suggested this is an attempt to win votes. But it’s important to recognise that advocates including myself have been working on this funding issue for three years - it’s not something that was just thought of yesterday as an election promise.

It’s refreshing to see politicians fund a vital social need at exactly what the advisory groups asked for - usually when you ask for something they try to fund something much smaller.

The question now is what this significant announcement might mean for places beyond Ontario; in the rest of Canada and in other countries around the world.

In mental health it doesn’t work to simply incorporate ready-packaged solutions from one place to another. Systems need to be built to cater for specific communities. Ontario is exceptionally diverse in cultures and languages and has a mix of urban areas and very rural ones. We have a unique indigenous population and different nations with different customs.

But Ontario’s decision can be meaningful for other places, including countries that might be a long way behind Canada in developing the conversation around reducing the stigma of mental illness. When I was a schoolgirl my teacher told me I was crazy. I felt confused, isolated and broken and it was these thoughts that led me to try to take my own life.

Eight years later we have done a lot to bring about that stigma reduction and now we have the money for services and support.

So for campaigners in countries where this sort of financial backing might seem an impossible dream I urge them to really push on and to work in partnerships with your governments, even if you don’t always love them. If people are passionate and put in the work then change can come.

For all of us who wish for better mental health systems this $2.1 billion moment is a long-awaited sign of hope.