In Canada, most efforts to support mental health focus on treating addiction or illness, or managing symptoms, and not on fostering mental health—and even those treatment services are not adequate to address the growing need.
All signs point to not being able to treat our way out of this crisis. We have to get ahead of it.
Mental health promotion efforts, such as suicide-prevention programs and community-based skills training on managing anger, reducing stress and addressing risky behaviours, are proven to improve population mental health and reduce public- and private-sector expenditure on mental health care and treatment.
“We all understand we have to brush our teeth to avoid cavities. We teach our kids about fire safety to stave off house fires. But our society still doesn’t get that it’s the same with mental health,” says Dr. Patrick Smith, national CEO, Canadian Mental Health Association. “Waiting until the house is on fire is way too late to start teaching kids not to play with matches.”
Given 70 per cent of mental health problems begin in childhood and adolescence, and that mental health promotion efforts are most effective when they begin early in life, schools are an ideal setting in which to promote the mental health of Canadians. School-based approaches, such as social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, can help students develop empathy, tenacity and self-esteem, as well as control impulses and identify and regulate their emotions, manage anger and stress, and get along with others.
In the workforce, which includes 60 per cent of those aged 16 or older, there is strong evidence that workplace-based mental health promotion programs are effective at reducing absenteeism and presenteeism, improving productivity and reducing health care costs.
“When we understand what mental health really is, we start to get that it’s something we all have. The mental health-care system of the future is not just in clinics or hospitals—it’s in workplaces and schools, serving entire populations and not just individual patients,” says Dr. Smith.