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Ontario launches new mental health strategy to improve access to services

TORONTO — Ontario is creating a central agency to oversee its revamp of the province's mental health system, but a group of service providers and opposition critics say the change must be backed up with a funding commitment.

TORONTO — Ontario is creating a central agency to oversee its revamp of the province's mental health system, but a group of service providers and opposition critics say the change must be backed up with a funding commitment.

Health Minister Christine Elliott announced the creation of the new Mental Health and Addictions Centre of Excellence on Tuesday, as she rolled out the government's long-promised plan to address gaps and cut wait times for mental health services.

The new agency — which the government has likened to Cancer Care Ontario — will help co-ordinated care, standardize treatment and assess where problems exist in the system, Elliott said.

"The centre will serve as the foundation upon which the road map to wellness is built," she said. "It will drive the broad and systematic transformation we need."

Premier Doug Ford's government has promised to spend $1.9 billion on mental health and addiction services over the next decade — a commitment the federal government says it will match.

Elliott provided few details about how much the plan will cost, but the government has said more details will be included in the spring budget later this month.

The plan announced Tuesday will also provide access to cognitive behavioural therapy designed to treat people struggling with anxiety or depression — a program called Mindability.

The government said that program will cost $20 million when it launches this spring and aims to treat 80,000 people annually when fully-implemented in three to four years.

In a joint statement, a number of public mental health providers, including hospitals, praised Elliott for the commitment but said it must be followed by a fully-funded plan to cut wait times.

The groups, which include Addictions and Mental Health Ontario, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO), said they estimate $380 million in new annual funding is urgently needed to begin to reduce wait times for children and youth, people with complex needs and to boost supportive housing.

"Investments in expansion of front-line services must be a priority, particularly at this time when hospitals are strained and the community sector is struggling with extremely long wait-lists," the groups said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Children's Mental Health Ontario, the association representing Ontario's publicly funded child and youth mental health centres, released a report that said wait times for children and youth mental health services have more than doubled in two years.

That study found 28,000 children and youth are currently on wait-lists for treatment across the province, up from approximately 12,000 in 2017.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the Progressive Conservative government's new plan lacked details. She called on the government to restore $330 million in mental health funding the previous Liberal government had committed to in its final budget before the 2018 election.

"It's easy to make announcements, and we've unfortunately seen this with governments in the past," Horwath said. "That's how our mental health crisis has grown. Follow-through doesn't ever occur."

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he is also troubled by the lack of funding specifics in the announcement.  

"My concern is the government doesn't seem to want to put any money behind their mental health plan," he said. "Under this government's watch, wait times for mental health services are ballooning. They've more than doubled for youth."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press