October – a time for turkey, pumpkin spice, and your favourite horror flicks.
It is also a time to reflect on mental well-being, as World Mental Health Day takes place on October 10 of every year.
For most of us, mental health issues have touched our lives in some way, either directly or through their impact on a friend or family member.
Twenty per cent of the population experience a mental illness, and by the time Canadians reach 40, half of them will have or have had a mental illness.
While mental health receives ample attention in the press, and people are increasingly open about their mental health battles, there remains a problem with how we frame the issue.
The conversation about how to manage mental health often leads to a focus on therapy, self-care through mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and medications aimed at modifying our feelings and thoughts.
All of these can be extremely helpful in addressing mental health issues, and in some cases the most powerful treatment plan involves using them together.
But they all fail to address one of the most powerful factors which shapes our mental health: material well-being.
The impact which poverty and financial stress have on mental health is devastating.
They contribute to depression and anxiety, and even when controlling for other factors, have been shown to increase the likelihood of substance dependence, phobia, and psychosis.
Whether examined nationally, provincially, or within neighbourhoods, poverty is also associated with higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide.
Case in point: Nunavut, which leads the country in child poverty and food insecurity, is Canada’s suicide hotspot, with seven times the suicide rate of any other province or territory.
Why is this particularly important now?
As inflation and costs of living rise, more Canadians are feeling the financial squeeze.
Research from this year shows that more than half of Canadians are struggling to pay their bills – up 10 points from 2015.
The pinch is so tight that 53 per cent say they are within just $200 of insolvency.
While the rising cost of living is talked about mostly in terms of everyday expenses like groceries, rent, gas, or phone bills, the toll on mental health is being felt too.
Even with provinces reopening and social activities returning, self-reports of mental health have decreased in 2022, with 40 per cent of young adults stating they are at a ‘breaking point’ mentally.
And mental health issues are especially pronounced among those with lower incomes, including veterans, Indigenous persons, and people with disabilities.
So, what needs to be done?
A fundamental step is to reframe how we look at mental health and cost-of-living measures.
While they are often thought of in completely different terms, they are actually neighbouring pieces of the same puzzle: mental health is a financial issue, and financial security is a mental health issue.
This must become the outlook to guide policymaking.
Measures consistent with it include raising social assistance rates, which are far below the poverty line in every province; creating a greater supply of affordable housing and requiring a social commitment from developers; and fast-tracking the long overdue Canada Disability Benefit.
Not only does addressing poverty increase the means one has to access to mental health resources, it helps prevent mental health issues from arising in the first place.
If our public officials are serious about mental health, they must act more boldly and more quickly in reducing poverty and making life more affordable for Canadians.
Just as people need someone to talk to, they also need dollars in their pocket so they can afford food in the fridge and a stable roof over their head.
When they have that, and are not kept up at night worrying about surviving, life is so much better.
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