EDMONTON - The new national commission on mental health should not overlook the huge effect homelessness has on people suffering from mental illnesses, say Alberta advocates.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Friday the membership of the Mental Health Commission of Canada -- which he said will take measures to eliminate the stigma of this illness that affects millions of Canadians at some point in their lives and create a national strategy to deal with it.
But as many as 75 per cent of homeless people suffer from mental illness, and
they are unlikely to get proper treatment if they do not have adequate shelter,
said Austin Mardon, who suffers from schizophrenia, and who this year was named
a member of the Order of Canada for his advocacy work.
"The pills are likely to get stolen or lost."
Many people with illnesses such as schizophrenia find it difficult to get housing for many reasons, such as discrimination by landlords and potential struggles to handle the demands or follow the rules of running a household, he said.
"For the hard-core mentally ill, it's not just a matter of getting cheap housing, but getting supportive housing," he said.
That means having help from staff to make sure they take their medications, attend doctor's appointments and get some kind of proper nutrition.
A national report released last week by the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that mental health problems were responsible for over half of the hospital stays of homeless people, compared to five per cent for the general population.
The Canadian Mental Health Association has been dealing with the housing issue for years, including a major conference called Housing First held this spring in Red Deer.
Tom Shand, executive director of the Alberta division of the CMHA, said shelter and safety are fundamental needs for everyone, and being on the street contributes to mental health and addictions problems, and reduces the likelihood of getting access to proper treatment.
"The most important thing is to get them off the street and into a secure place to live," Shand said.
This doesn't mean a temporary situation like a shelter for a day or a week, but a more permanent housing, he said.
"People will have a chance, although there will be setbacks, to recover and to have a better quality of life," Shand said.
"Most of these people have strength to survive day to day that is more than we can imagine, but they don't get a chance to make inroads into these issues."
Shand applauded the goal of removing the stigma of mental illness, which he said prevents people from seeking help.
If people lose that fear and get treatment earlier, their illness will not be as severe and the associated social problems will not be as serious, he said.