Quicker action needed on mental health hotline

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Canada’s health-care system — although currently under extreme duress — is often the first thing international onlookers appreciate about our country, especially folks south of the border who ravage their pockets for even the most simple procedures.

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Opinion

Canada’s health-care system — although currently under extreme duress — is often the first thing international onlookers appreciate about our country, especially folks south of the border who ravage their pockets for even the most simple procedures.

Yet, it’s our southern neighbour who beat us to the punch in the latest development of mental health care. Over the weekend, the U.S. launched its nationwide mental health crisis hotline that can be accessed through a three-digit phone number, 988.

Once fully operational, according to The Canadian Press, the hotline will offer Americans struggling with suicidal thoughts a number to call that will connect them with trained mental health counsellors instead of law enforcement personnel.

The House of Commons unanimously voted in favour of establishing a three-digit suicide prevention number in 2020, yet two years later such a service is nowhere to be found. The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic might have been an opportune time to launch the hotline, as more people were staying home and unable to access mental health services in person. As a result of forced isolation and quarantine related to the virus, many Canadians became cloaked in depression with few places to turn.

A Health Canada spokesperson told The Canadian Press last week that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is evaluating how a hotline number could be introduced, and the department expects a decision from the agency later this year. What took so long?

In February, the Sun spoke to Manitobans who had been struggling to access mental health supports in the province due to long wait lists, distance from services or a stagnant health system. Implementing an easy-to-access suicide hotline is just one way the federal government can demonstrate its commitment to improving wellness among Canadians and address the shortage of mental health counsellors.

In June, the province announced it would commit $850,000 to recruit five psychologists to reduce wait times. While it’s a good step, it’s not nearly enough to relieve the growing wait lists. Already in 2017, a health review called the Peachy Report determined that psychology services in Manitoba were under-resourced — and the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

In fact, Dr. Jo Ann Unger, president of the Manitoba Psychologists Society, said last month that our province has the lowest rate of psychologists in Canada — about 20 per 100,000 people compared to the national average of approximately 50 per 100,000, according to a CBC report.

A national suicide hotline is important, but we also need the province to ensure enough mental health supports are available to help people in the aftermath, especially in rural areas where counsellors are harder to come by.

Another perk of the hotline is that it would redirect urgent mental health calls away from police. This would likely ensure a better response for the subject of the call and allow police to focus on other duties.

“A three-digit number for mental health crisis and support is what we need, not 911 criminalizing mental health,” Sheryl Boswell, the executive director of Youth Mental Health Canada, told The Canadian Press on Sunday. “This is a health crisis, and we need a compassionate health response.”

Indeed. And if Canada is to live up to its “universal health care” reputation, our government must make greater strides to ensure mental health isn’t left behind.

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