$2.1 billion for mental health seen as re-election ploy, too late to be genuine

Local NDP, Conservative MPPs see Liberal promises for mental health funding too late to be genuine

London MPPs say Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is trying to breathe life into her dying re-election chance by promising $2.1 billion for mental health care and addiction services that have withered under 15 years of Liberal rule.

If Wynne really wanted to help those with mental illness and addiction, her government would have made the investment years ago rather than wait until 80 days before the next provincial election, say local NDP and Progressive Conservative MPPs.

“It’s shameful,” London West MPP Peggy Sattler told The Free Press. “These problems have developed over the course of 15 years.”

The ruling Liberals “are trying to say and promise anything to (secure) votes,” said PC Health Critic Jeff Yurek (Elgin-Middlesex-London) Premier Kathleen Wynne said Wednesday her government will spend $2.1 billion during the next four years to rebuild Ontario’s mental health system, the latest in a string of funding announcements the opposition parties are calling an attempt by the Liberals to bolster their re-election chances.

Wynne, whose is facing an uphill battle in the upcoming spring election, said the spending will make services more accessible, ensuring people can find treatment through a local doctor’s office, school or community-based organization.

“We have a good system,” Wynne said. “But the fact is that too many people are struggling to navigate the system to find the care that they need, either because it’s not there or because they don’t have a way of navigating. Part of today’s announcement is about ensuring that there is no wrong door to accessing mental health care.”

Wynne said her plan would bolster youth access to therapy and counselling, allowing 12,000 more young people to access service in 2018-2019 and growing that number to 46,000 in 2021-2022.

It also calls for every secondary school in the province to have access to an additional mental health worker, creating approximately 400 new positions within two years.

“This announcement means that every high school will have access to an additional mental health worker and more mental health services on college and university campuses so that your son or daughter can get the help that they need if they’re struggling with anxiety or an eating disorder,” Wynne said.

The program would also increase access to publicly funded psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioural therapy, for up to 350,000 more people with mild to moderate anxiety or depression.

The announcement comes after a government throne speech Monday that promised a significant funding commitment for mental health in the provincial budget, which will be tabled on March 28.

Progressive Conservative legislator Lisa MacLeod, who has spoken publicly about her own mental health struggles, said government inaction has lead to long waits for mental health care across the province. With less than 80 days before the spring election, MacLeod said the timing of the announcement was questionable.

“The only thing they care about is re-election,” MacLeod said. “Why, after 15 years, is this government only now committing to invest in mental health?”

In November, the Tories pledged to spend $1.9 billion on mental health under then-leader Patrick Brown, but it’s not clear if his successor, Doug Ford, will include that promise in his campaign platform.

“I’ve spoken with Doug and he’s very clearly committed to ensuring that we have significant investments into mental health and addictions in the province of Ontario,” MacLeod said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government has had the work of a select legislative committee that investigated mental health and addictions services at its finger tips for nearly eight years and done nothing.

In 2010, that committee’s top recommendation was the establishment of an umbrella organization to deal with mental health and addictions issues similar to Cancer Care Ontario. Last year, the NDP pledged to create a stand-alone ministry of mental health and addictions if it forms government.

“For far too long mental health has been ignored,” Horwath said. “Look, the Liberals were in government eight years ago when the results of an all-party committee were brought forward. What’s happened in the last eight years? Not very much at all. The all-party committee on mental health, I guess, was all for show.”

But the government’s plan did win praise from the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario branch, with chief executive Camille Quenneville lauding the announcement as “strong policy direction” that will strengthen the system.

“Today is an important day for any individual or family in Ontario who knows first-hand the challenges of living with a mental health or addictions issues,” Quenneville said in a statement. “We believe this historic announcement to be a monumental first step to fixing a mental health and addiction system that has been in crisis for many years.”

Ontario voters go to the polls June 7.

With files by Canadian Press

Jonathan Sher

The London Free Press