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Funding peer support for mental health should be a key component of a national strategy

The federal government hasn’t fulfilled its promises on mental health. It should immediately scale up funding for peer support services

August 31, 2023

3-minute read

Mental health organizations and advocates in Canada have been calling for better mental health services for a long time. With long wait times for services covered by Medicare and soaring prices for private services, many people who need mental health support cannot find it.

The pandemic has only exacerbated this situation. Near the end of 2021, 37 per cent of Canadians were reporting a deterioration in their mental health since the onset of the pandemic. Since then, more recent data has indicated that “increased mental health challenges could become the new normal for Canadians.” Notably, “younger Canadians, those who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+, racialized groups, and those facing financial challenges are more likely to indicate high levels of anxiety and depression.”

An understanding of the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of Canadians is still emerging, but the impact of COVID-19 on mental health is real and with an overburdened health system, it is clear that there is a significant unmet need for mental health care. While the shift to virtual mental health care increased accessibility of care for some, other barriers to service persist—such as financial constraints, long wait times, and not knowing where to get help.

The federal Liberal Party’s 2021 platform promised the Canada Mental Health Transfer (CMHT), a new federal transfer that would establish an ongoing dedicated fund for mental health services in the provinces and territories, leading to the creation of an expanded Medicare-covered mental health care system. Since the party’s re-election in 2021, mental health organizations and advocates have been calling for federal government to follow through with the promised CMHT.

Unfortunately, the federal government’s February health care funding deal with the provinces didn’t deliver on its election-time mental health promise. While the health care transfer includes mental health as one of its four priorities, the funding falls short of the proposed CMHT and leaves mental health competing with other health care priorities, such as family health and the health workforce crisis.

While new health care funding is welcome, without federal accountability measures, there is no guarantee for how those funds are used. If the provincial and territorial governments want to take meaningful action towards meeting the mental health care needs of Canadians, working to develop accountability measures by consulting with organizations that advocate for better mental health supports in Canada will be essential.

In the meantime, we have a mental health crisis on our hands that only seems to be accelerating due to ongoing economic, environmental, and socio-political uncertainties. We need to come together now with creative solutions to fill the current gaps in service while continuing to hold federal and provincial/territorial governments to account for the lack of action on mental health initiatives.

One way to do this is to bolster community-based peer support services. Community groups and organizations are mobilized and working effectively to support their community members, filling gaps in service wherever they can.

Organizations like Peer Support Canada are looking towards a future mental health system that features peer support as an integral component. Not only does peer support work as a direct form of mental health care, it also functions as informal system navigational support—an essential part of any health care system.

For people seeking mental health support in a system of care as fractured as ours, it can be especially difficult to find care and make transitions between providers or types of care. According to a recent poll by Mental Health Research Canada, while most Canadians feel that they know how to access mental health care, not knowing how to access care is the primary barrier for those who have an unmet need. Only two in five Canadians who are accessing mental health or substance use services “always” or “usually” had system navigational support.

Peer support works, but community organizations need funding for new programming and volunteer training if peer support interventions are to be scaled up. With a combination of capacity and project grants, the federal, provincial, and territorial governments can bolster the emergency response work already being done by community volunteers and workers.

Now is not the time to sit back and wait. While government money is used to increase capacity and make incremental improvements, there will be opportunities to get involved in other ways to address Canada’s mental health crisis by proceeding on multiple fronts.

The problem requires the clear leadership that the federal government promised at election time and has yet to deliver, but with complementary solutions, such as community-based peer support, we can attack this problem from new angles and help our fellow Canadians who are struggling.

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