Mental illness, Aboriginal misery haunt Canada

Mental illness, Aboriginal misery haunt Canada

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

A US-type tragedy has jolted Canadians and reminded them that though their country is among the best in the world, it too bears untreated warts - the misery of the Aboriginal people and mental illness among Canadians, particularly among the First Nations.

The Justin Trudeau government has pledged to improve the plight of the Aboriginal people. Across Canada, meanwhile, governments, agencies and medical professionals have started working together to reduce mental illness, which afflicts all sections of Canadians. Among the Aboriginal people, however, it leads to more violence, alcoholism, crimes and suicides.

Four people were killed and seven injured in the remote community of La Loche, in Saskatchewan province, in a mass shooting by a 17-year-old youth. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the city and expressed his sympathies.  Federal government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc called the violence tragic and said the government will work to improve the situation.

A Mental Health Awareness week is arranged in Canada regularly to raise awareness and seek citizens’ participation. It highlights that:
* 20 percent of Canadians experience a mental illness.

* Mental illness is prevalent in people of all ages, cultures, educational and income levels.

* About one percent of Canadians suffer manic depression and another one percent schizophrenia.

* Suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 25-44 years old. Suicide is among the leading causes of death in men and women from adolescence to middle age.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that 500,000 Canadians miss work because of a mental health problem and that the lost productivity, income supports and health expenses cost some $52 billion every year.

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) asserts that those afflicted rose from 4.7 percent a decade ago to 7.1 percent in 2013. Canada spends on mental health just seven percent of the money it spends on health care compared with 10 to 12 percent in the Netherlands, said Louise  Bradley, president of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). However, now Canada is taking action to reduce the problem drastically.

The Muslim Coordinating Council and the Ottawa Muslim Association arranged a session at the Ottawa mosque on Mental Illness in Children and Youth, conveying the message that mood disorder, depression, substance abuse, addictive behavior and suicide are treatable. Ottawa physician Dr. Ferrukh Faruqui arranged the event at the suggestion of Imam Samy Metwally.

Dr. Khalid Bazaid, a child psychiatrist working with Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and at the University of  Ottawa, said that suicides constitute the second leading cause of death among 16 to 24 year olds (after motor vehicle accidents). He quote Statistics Canada which stated in 2002 that 15 percent of youth have mental health problems, compared to about five percent among all Canadians.

Dr. Bazaid said biological, psychological, social and environmental causes lead to depression and suicide. He stated that this can be corrected with adequate care including counseling.

Dr. Faruqui called the problem tragic but stated that it can be tackled.  She listed the agencies and individuals in Ottawa who are working to assist those needing treatment.

The Canadian Mental Health Association asserts that 10 to 20 percent of youth are hit by  mental illness. A study by Dalhousie University’s Department of Psychiatry states that those who attend religious functions cope better with depression, according to Daniel Rasic of the department.

Among the Aboriginals who live on reserves in Third World conditions depression leads to suicides. The suicide rate among Aboriginal youth is about five to six times more than among non-Aboriginal youth. The suicide rate for Aboriginal youths is 126 per 100,000, compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginals.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported prison ombudsman Howard Sapers as stating that Aboriginals number 3,723 out of 14,624 federal prisoners - though Aboriginals only are 1.4 million, or just 4.3 percent of Canada’s 35 million people. Aboriginal women number more than a third of the women in federal jails.

In 2012, the United Nations Committee against Torture found Canada violating its human rights obligations under the Convention against Torture. It recommended that Canada deal adequately with the needs of prisoners with mental illness instead of placing them in prolonged solitary confinement.

Maclean’s magazine reported that often people who need treatment end up in jails, often with addictions, compounding their problems. The Correctional Services  of Canada estimates that prisoners with psychiatric disorders range from 64 percent to 81 percent.

Dr. Zul Merali, president of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, said that the “burden of depression is 1.5 times greater than all cancers put together and five times more than all infectious diseases put together.” He said the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Center has set up a depression research center that emphasizes total care. “Part of our broader vision is to treat the patient as a whole, not just one condition at a time.”

Dr. David Goldbloom, vice-chairman of the mental health commission, says the issue is now in the national limelight and is now being tackled gradually but effectively. That’s the hope.


— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.