Mental health still not a priority, patients and workers pay the price

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More investment needed

COVID-19 has left many individuals in isolation for months, and as a result, many people have felt disconnected and isolated for the duration of their time alone. Mental health is essential for one’s well-being and should be prioritized as much as physical health. With more than one quarter of Canadians aged 15 and older facing some kind of mental health struggle, there needs to be more effort to treat mental illness on personal, community, and public health levels.

I had the opportunity to speak to a registered nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, about mental health in the health care system and their perspective on what needs to change. 

When asked what would happen if we treated mental health the same way we treated physical health, they replied,“We would have a healthier population – both better mental health and physical health. Society would be more accepting and tolerant, and this develops a sense of community and the attitude that ‘no one gets left behind.’ Mental health would be something we discuss and act upon and support others with rather than labelling and isolating those who struggle.” 

To understand mental health you need to recognize the warning signs of an impending mental health crisis, which can be difficult when the subject is so fiercely neglected. 

“People are left to figure it out on their own – they struggle unnecessarily, do not identify warning signs before small issues become large issues, people do not reach out for help until they are in a crisis and our system responds poorly to mental health crises. People can end up not functioning well or having an excessively long road to recovery that prevents them from living an optimal life. They are labelled as mentally ill which creates personal, socio-economic barriers, adding to their struggles.”

Not only is it important to keep patients’ mental health in check, but workers in the health sector need to be able to prioritize their own mental health, something that isn’t happening right now, and that’s taking a toll on workers and the healthcare system itself.

“I have seen mentally ill health care workers be ineffective in their jobs because of their condition or an exacerbation of their condition. Health care in Saskatchewan has been focused on attendance management for several years now. Some people on these programs [have absences] related to their mental health issues. Stress leaves or mental health leaves to attend to mental health are denied. If you have a heart attack related to work stress you can access sick time to attend to your health with little questioning. If you have a mental health concern there is little empathy, you are considered to be a behaviour problem and a stress leave is no longer considered applicable in this situation and you could subject to discipline. Part of this is due to the unpredictability of mental health concerns at times. I don’t condone abuse of sick time or malingering, but health care is a high stress environment where we deal with people who are very vulnerable. Wouldn’t you want your workers at their best when they are assisting vulnerable clientele? A stigma exists and no one wants to have their health needs have to be addressed by a co-worker in a smaller community. EFAP [Employee and Family Assistance Program] is available but highly rationed.”

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