New mental health and addictions strategy stresses teamwork and targeting neighbourhoods

A long-awaited plan to target the city’s mental health and addictions challenges stresses the need for London’s many agencies to talk to each other — and to the people looking for help.  It may seem like simple advice, but with a massive network of organizations and an even more complicated web of challenges to tackle, taking time for communication and looking for chances to team up isn’t always so easy.

The mental health and addictions strategy, which heads to politicians for debate Tuesday, is the start of a made-in-London solution for what are sometimes uniquely London problems — think stubbornly high HIV rates and longer-than-average hospital stays for those with mental health challenges.  In a worrying trend, Statistics Canada data shows a 132 per cent jump in Londoners rating their mental health fair or poor between 2003 and 2014.

The prescription outlined by experts, frontline workers, and Londoners who use mental health and addiction services is pretty simple:

Work together. Communicate. Fill the gaps. Make access easy.

“It’s about bringing all the players together in the community, and not some government body making the decisions and saying what the problem is or what the solution is,” said Coun. Maureen Cassidy, who sits on the Middlesex-London Health Unit board and co-chairs the mayor’s advisory panel on poverty.

“This is a community-driven effort.”

Council earmarked $200,000 to create the strategy. Only $88,000 was spent, so staff are rolling the rest into the next phase — doing the work.

Here are some of the goals outlined in the strategy:

  • Offer services outside “traditional business hours.”
  • Study neighbourhood health trends and prioritize target areas.
  • Create a specific mental health and addictions plan for London’s Indigenous population that is vastly over represented.
  • Develop a map or listing of mental health and addictions services in the city.

Making sure that Londoners know what’s available — and how to find it — is crucial.  “People need to understand the system,” said Sandra Datars Bere, the city’s director of housing and social services.  “They’re not quite sure what they can get, how to get it, and what type of services are provided.”

Londoners are asking for one-stop shopping, a single access point for all the city’s services. But with funding flowing from different directions, and a mix of independent and government-run agencies, linking them all under a single umbrella isn’t likely.  But it doesn’t mean organizations can’t work together. Collaborating just makes sense.  “There’s a limited amount of funding out there. When we have overlap — and then at the same time we have gaps — we can’t have that happening,” Cassidy said.

Those who worked on the strategy understand that to many Londoners, it looks just another report — yet another group tasked with finding answers to the city’s issues.  “Is it going to change things instantly? No. I would love to say it would. It’s going to take time,” Datars Bere said.

It may not be happening as fast as some would like, but Cassidy said London is on the road to a “holistic” system, where challenges such as addictions and mental health are seen as pieces of a larger puzzle.  “There is no quick fix, there is no instant solution,” she said. “It’s going to take time to work on this problem and get a strategy in place that’s really going to make a difference.”

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