Toronto releases 5-year mental health and harm reduction treatment strategy

Staff with the City of Toronto have released their plan to help those struggling with substance abuse get the supports they need. Faiza Amin reports on the new plan, and what advocates are hoping to see.

By Meredith Bond and Faiza Amin

The City of Toronto has released its five-year mental health and harm reduction strategy with a focus on mental health and treatment.

During a press conference on Monday, councillors Chris Moise and Ausma Malik outlined the seven main actions of “Our Health, Our City” aimed at mitigating substance use-related harms and fostering mental health and well-being.

“This strategy is a testament to the dedication of a united front in addressing mental health, substance use and related challenges. Our health, our city is not just a document. It is a commitment to the well-being of every Torontonian,” said Moise.

The actions include:

  1. Promoting mental health and wellbeing
  2. Preventing and reducing harms and deaths related to substance use
  3. Expanding access to the full continuum of high-quality, evidence-based and client-centred services to address mental health and/or substance use issues, including harm reduction and treatment supports
  4. Advancing community safety and well-being for everyone
  5. Improving access to housing and other social determinants of health
  6. Supporting mentally healthy workplaces and optimizing the mental health of workers
  7. Proactively identifying and responding to emerging mental health and substance use issues

It also provides recommendations “tailored to diverse age groups, acknowledging Toronto’s growing, aging and increasingly diverse population.”

The focus of the strategy, according to the councillors, is that mental health and addiction is not a criminal issue, it is a health issue.

“Acknowledging the roots of mental illnesses and substance use is social discrimination, inequity and trauma, this strategy emphasizes the need to invest in families, in neighborhoods and in communities,” said Malik.

Malik said recent statistics they have seen are alarming, with one in two Canadians affected by mental health issues by the age of 40. It’s also been exponentially worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Only 55 per cent of adults in Toronto reported being in “very good” or “excellent” mental health, down from 71 per cent in 2017.

“No one is unaffected by the impact of mental health and substance use and challenges persist, the ones that we know well, and they include the drug toxicity crisis, high living costs in a city like ours, housing accessibility, and the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She added implementation will require a concerted effort from multiple city divisions, community organizations and health care partners.

“In a city like ours, we should all have what we need to thrive and this includes affordable housing, access to supports and a sense of community and belonging that is part of the solution as well.”

The commitment relies on funding from the provincial and federal governments.

“There are many MPs from Toronto so they see what’s happening in the streets of Toronto on a day-to-day basis. They are not immune to it. They have friends, their family are all affected by what’s happening on the streets of Toronto,” said Moise. “And I feel that they are in a good position to advocate on our behalf.”

Another key part of the strategy includes Toronto’s application to Health Canada for an exemption for drug decriminalization.

Toronto Public Health applied for the exemption to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs in January of 2022 and is currently still engaged in ongoing discussions with Health Canada.

In 2022, there were 509 opioid toxicity deaths, representing a 271 per cent increase since 2015, all deaths that could’ve been preventable, according to the City.

However, Chief of Paramedic Services Bikram Chawla said they are already treating mental health and substance abuse issues as a a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

“We’re starting to build a bit of an infrastructure that can actually respond to those calls in ways that I think is going to be far more effective than what we have been relying upon over the last number of years really.”

“Health Canada coming into the picture at a later date is not going to change a lot of the things we’re doing here in the city,” added Moise.

Health Canada said they cannot comment on exemption requests currently under review and added Toronto Public Health submitted and updated request to them on March 23, 2023.

“We will continue to work with Toronto Public Health to ensure both public health and public safety considerations are included,” read their statement. “A top priority of the Government of Canada is to combat the toxic drug and overdose crisis, which continues to take a tragic toll on families, friends, and communities across Canada.”

The five-year plan will go before the Toronto Board of Health for discussion on November 27.

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