Some important developments concerning Alberta’s approach to mental illness occurred in 2019.

In June, the Alberta Ombudsman – concerned that five-year-old recommendations about Mental Health Review Panels hadn’t been implemented – released the report Treating People with Mental Illness Fairly. The following month a Court of Queen’s Bench Justice declared in JH vs AHS that parts of the Mental Health Act are unconstitutional, and gave the government a year to bring it into line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By the close of 2019, the government had responded by publishing a survey to collect public input regarding numerous detailed and technical possibilities.

The recent criticisms of the health system aren’t about improving treatment for the 4% of Albertans who experience a serious mental illness. They’re more interested in the legal “right” to refuse treatment, even though it’s been shown that untreated mental illness leads to higher rates of permanent disability, homelessness, victimization and suicide.

Over the years there have been frequent critiques of our mental health system as being “in crisis,” “broken, dysfunctional” and “cracking at the seams.” These criticisms, while thoroughly justified, assume we have a “system” rather than a scattered collection of disconnected health care, legalities, law enforcement and non-profits. System is defined by Oxford as “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.” Anyone who has tried to advocate for a loved one’s care knows that what passes for mental health care in Alberta isn’t an interconnecting network and comes nowhere close to working together. Families carry the burden of navigating and filling in the gaps while caring for a seriously-ill loved one.

No one agency or government is to blame for the current situation; the current situation developed haphazardly over the years as governments have tried to address the most immediate issues.

Families acknowledge that suspension of legal rights shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, attempts to correct the practice of mental health care from a narrow perspective focused on a single legal aspect can only bring more problems – with potentially fatal consequences.

Families want to protect and preserve the health and rights of their loved ones. Families have intimate knowledge of the failings of our mental health services. Families are the first to notice symptoms, the advocates to obtain effective treatment and the lifelong caregivers.

We have an opportunity to provide our input. Please fill out the survey by January 20. Maybe this year can be the start of a more humane, effective, interconnected network of mental health care for our loved ones.