EDITORIAL: A serious issue made visible

Everyone must demand better resources for mental illness, which directly affects one in five Canadians and indirectly impacts us all.

Dr. Joti Samra calls mental illness an “invisible condition,” noting that while it may be more serious, it’s not as obvious as a broken leg.

It’s an apt analogy, one that has been echoed by many people over the last six weeks, as The Leader examined the effects of mental illness in its “Hard to Help” series. (Read it online at surreyleader.com).

There was the tragic case of Janice Shore, beaten and left to die in a vacant lot in Whalley after a difficult life marked by episodes of manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia.

We learned how society has come full circle – from warehousing the mentally ill in jails more than 150 years ago, to creating phsychiatric asylums, to shutting those facilities down, to warehousing the mentally ill in jails.

Today in Surrey and elsewhere, there are people with mental health problems standing in food lines and left to languish on the streets.

We heard from devastated families desperate to find effective and lasting help for their loved ones.

Perhaps most importantly, we heard from the sufferers themselves, those who bravely agreed to talk to the media despite a formidble foe – stigma, which has been described by health care professionals as being worse than the disease itself.

Ashleigh Singleton and her father broke their silence for the first time about the dark family secret of schizophrenia.

And there was Brian Bylo, the former Holy Cross High School soccer star who was released from the Fraser Valley Correctional Facility on Monday after doing time for the most recent of his numerous brushes with the law.

He has been set free into a tentative future with a challenging dual diagnosis: schizophrenia and addiction.

When will he, and others like him, finally get the help they need?

Certainly, there are positive steps being taken in the right direction. Surrey has a new sobering centre up and running, an alternative to jail where those drunk or high on drugs can be kept safe and offered treatment.

Surrey RCMP has created a groundbreaking mental health liaison position that is successfully diverting the mentally ill from prison cells and into programs.

And Fraser Health Authority’s ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) program links those leaving hospital with stable housing and other supports.

These initiatives are saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. But so much more can, and needs, to be done.

“There’s huge gaps that we still face,” says Dr. Samra. “We simply aren’t well equipped… If you look at us as a country, as a province, the mental health services just don’t get funded in the same way the physical health services do.”

A recent report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada recommended the nation increase the share of total health care dollars allocated to mental illness from seven to nine per cent over the next decade. The price tag for that increase would be about $4 billion. But that seems a small amount considering untreated mental health issues cost the Canadian economy about $50 billion annually.

However, even if the feds ante up, mental health must be a provincial priority.

B.C. is  in the midst of an election campaign. What better time to elicit commitments from those who hold the purse strings?

Those who have the conviction to talk about an issue that is fraught with shame, denial, ignorance and neglect are doing their part by ushering mental illness out of the darkness and into the spotlight.

It’s time we all spoke up and demanded better resources for mental illness, an issue which directly affects one in five Canadians and indirectly impacts everyone.

Surrey North Delta Leader

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