On Oct 17 and 18, 2013, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) held its annual national conference. Hosted by CMHA Ottawa, the conference focused on addressing the social determinants of mental health and addictions, in recognition of the fact that a person’s mental health is influenced by a range of factors. These factors, referred to as the social determinants of health, include life experiences, workplace or other environments, housing, Income and other socio-economic conditions. In his opening remarks, CMHA National CEO Peter Coleridge noted that despite progress in mental health care, the social determinants of health need to be considered for greater improvement. “Mental health and addiction stakeholders and governments have to focus more upstream to address the determinants of mental health and addition in order to change the face of mental health and mental illness in Canada,” he said.
Among the presenters at this year’s conference was Dr. Marni Brownell, a Canadian expert in the area of early childhood experiences, and American expert Dr. Sam Tsemberis, founder of the revolutionary “Housing First” model.
Early Childhood Development and Health Equity
Dr. Marni Brownell, Senior Research Scientist with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, spoke at length on how early childhood developmental experiences impact on health equity. Presenting a vast amount of research and data, Dr. Brownell discussed how the social determinants of health that we experience as early as the prenatal period can have broad reaching impacts on our health and mental health.
In particular, Dr. Brownell emphasized how the social and economic conditions we experience in childhood influences the way that we manage stress in adulthood. Highlighting research which shows how prolonged, intense stress in childhood can cause changes in brain development, Dr. Brownell stressed the importance of early childhood programs in making a difference. Research shows that every dollar invested in early childhood programs can yield between four to nine dollars in savings for health care and justice systems.
The impacts of the social determinants of health are why these factors continue to be a cornerstone of CMHA Ontario’s work in mental health. CMHA Ontario partnered with four other provincial organizations to prepare Mental Health Promotion in Ontario: A Call To Action, which identified the most significant determinants of mental health and called on the provincial government to set an agenda for mental health promotion in Ontario.
Housing and Mental Health
The conference had a special focus on the influence of housing on mental health, with a keynote from American expert Dr. Sam Tsemberis, CEO of Pathways to Housing and credited with developing the “Housing First” model. Based on the belief that housing is a basic right for all, Housing First provides individuals who are homeless immediate access to permanent supportive housing, followed by supportive treatment services in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment.
During his conference keynote, Dr. Tsemberis highlighted that the Housing First model provides participants with a choice of a home rather than a simply a conditional space in a housing program.
“If the goal is successful community integration then housing for people with psychiatric disabilities should look like where you and I live,” said Tsemberis.
Based on the Housing First model, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi research initiative was also featured through a panel discussion at the conference. Starting in 2009, the four-year research project initiated in five Canadian cities was designed to provide practical, meaningful support to Canadians experiencing homelessness and mental health problems. Panelists consisted of coordinators for three of the five participating cities: Dr. Eric Latimer from the Montreal site, Ms. Corinne Isaak from the Winnipeg site, and Ms. Claudette Bradshaw of the Moncton site.
All three panelists demonstrated the effectiveness of the program in improving quality of life and supporting the recovery of participants. Results presented showed that Housing First is economically efficient, with almost complete cost recovery from program. By investing in housing costs for participants in the program, the cities that participated saved costs to both the legal and health care system over the long term.
These findings are encouraging as they are consistent with previous CMHA Ontario recommendations. CMHA Ontario is active in advocating for affordable housing and addressing housing concerns experienced by individuals living with mental health conditions in the province. In 2009, a joint submission by CMHA Ontario and five provincial organizations on the provincial affordable housing strategy recommended that Ontario increase the supply of supportive housing units, as an adequately funded system of housing options aligns with a harm reduction approach for persons with serious mental health and substance use issues.
CMHA’s strategic plan comes to life
The conference wrapped up with the release CMHA National’s 2012-13 Annual Report, which showcased how CMHA’s ambitious strategic plan has gone to action. Over the past year, CMHA has worked to achieve our strategic goals and strengthen our collective impact.
Highlights from the Annual Report include:
- CMHA’s key role in the mental health sector
- How CMHA’s more than 10,000 volunteers and staff are living the plan every day
- Key points from CMHA’s National Conference 2012
Read the full report on the CMHA National website.
For more notes and highlights on the CMHA conference, visit the conference website.