The City of Toronto has released a five-year mental health and harm reduction strategy with a focus on mental health and treatment.
At a press conference on Monday, Councilors Chris Moise and Ausma Malik outlined seven key actions for Our Health, Our City to address drug use harm and mental health and wellbeing.
“This strategy demonstrates a commitment to a united front in the fight against mental health, drug use and related challenges. Our health, our city is not just a document. It is a commitment to the well-being of every Torontonian,” Moise said.
- Promoting mental health and well-being
- Preventing and reducing drug-related harm and death
- Expanding access to a full continuum of high-quality, evidence-based and client-centred services to address mental health and/or substance use problems, including harm reduction and treatment support.
- Promoting community safety and well-being for all
- Improving access to housing and other social determinants of health
- Supporting mentally healthy workplaces and optimizing employee mental health
- Proactively identify and respond to mental health and substance use problems
It also provides recommendations “tailored for different age groups, recognizing Toronto’s growing, aging and increasingly diverse population.”
The core of the strategy, according to council members, is that mental health and addiction is not a criminal issue, it’s a health issue.
“Acknowledging the roots of mental illness and drug use are social discrimination, inequality and trauma, this strategy underscores the need to invest in families, neighborhoods and communities,” Malik said.
Malik said the latest statistics they’ve seen are alarming, with one in two Canadians suffering from mental health issues by the age of 40. It has also gotten exponentially worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only 55 percent of Toronto adults reported having “very good” or “excellent” mental health, down from 71 percent in 2017.
“No one is addressing the impact of mental health and drug use, and there are challenges that we know well, and they include the drug addiction crisis, the high cost of living in a city like ours, housing affordability and the long-term effects. The COVID-19 pandemic.”
He added that implementation will require the combined efforts of several city departments, community organizations and health partners.
“In a city like ours, we all need to have what we need to thrive, and that includes affordable housing, access to support and a sense of community and belonging, which is also part of the solution.”
The commitment is based on funding from state and federal governments.
“There are a lot of MPs from Toronto, so they see what’s happening on the streets of Toronto every day. They are not immune to it. They have friends, their family is affected by what’s happening on the streets of Toronto,” Moise said. “And I feel like they’re in a good position to advocate on our behalf.”
Another important part of the strategy involves Toronto’s application to Health Canada for an exemption to decriminalize drugs.
Toronto Public Health applied for an exemption decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in January 2022 and is currently still engaged in ongoing discussions with Health Canada.
There were 509 opioid poisoning deaths in 2022, a 271 percent increase since 2015, all deaths that could have been prevented, according to the city.
However, paramedic services chief Bikram Chawla said they already treat mental health and substance abuse issues as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
“We’re starting to build a little bit of an infrastructure that can actually respond to those calls in a way that I think will be much more efficient than what we’ve really relied on for the last couple of years.”
“Health Canada coming in later is not going to change a lot of things that we do here in the city,” Moyes added.
Health Canada said they cannot comment on exemption requests currently under review and added Toronto Public Health submitted and updated them on March 23, 2023.
“We will continue to work with Toronto Public Health to ensure that both public health and public safety considerations are included,” they said in a statement. “The Government of Canada’s priority is to combat the drug and overdose crisis that continues to take a tragic toll on Canadian families, friends and communities.”
The five-year plan will go before the Toronto Board of Health on November 27.
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