https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2022/03/03/green-party-focuses-on-mental-health-in-ontario-election-platform.html

Forget scrapping licence plate fees and losing $1.1 billion a year from the provincial treasury — that money should be spent on mental health, says the Green Party of Ontario.

In an election campaign platform that specifically addresses pandemic anxiety, the Greens are promising to cut wait times for children’s services, create a three-digit hotline for mental distress and even boost stress-busting help through more trails and parks.

The cost, at $6.6 billion over four years, would be largely funded by reinstating licence plate sticker fees — which Premier Doug Ford recently did away with — Green Leader Mike Schreiner told the Star in an exclusive interview in advance of Thursday’s platform release.

“I guess the bottom line for me is, everything is not OK when it comes to mental health,” Schreiner said.

“People were experiencing significant wait times and lack of access to services pre-pandemic, but things have gotten much worse over the past two years during the pandemic,” he said, with about half of Ontarians saying their mental health has worsened during the pandemic and many not being able to find the help they need.

Schreiner believes his party is the first to put out a stand-alone platform on mental health and addictions, which will form a large part of its campaign promises for the upcoming June 2 election.

Prior to the pandemic, Children’s Mental Health Ontario had reported 28,000 children on wait lists of up to 2.5 years for mental health services, and Schreiner said even accessing a therapist can take more than 67 days, and up to 92 days for more intensive treatments.

“If you went to an emergency room with a broken arm, and were told ‘Yes, we can fix that but it’s going to take 92 days,’ that would just be completely unacceptable and ridiculous,” he said. “So why is that the case with mental health services, especially when so many people are saying mental health is health?”

During the last election campaign, the Progressive Conservatives pledged $3.8 billion over 10 years for mental health. The Ford government has spent additional millions for mental health supports in education, much of it pandemic-related, and has an associate minister of mental health and addictions, Michael Tibollo, who Schreiner said has been listening to the needs of Ontarians.

Schreiner said a Green government would make mental health spending about 10 per cent of the provincial budget, with an immediate eight per cent increase for community health services.

“This is the real implications of taking $1.1 billion out of the provincial budget,” he said of the end of licence plate sticker fees. “That’s $6.6 billion over four years for mental health and addictions — $4.4 billion of that coming from the lost revenue from licence stickers. The rest is from the federal government fulfilling promises they made in the budget and their election platform.”

He said there’s a clear tie-in to communities and the environment, and that increasing access to “nature, parks, trails, green space — making investments in protecting green space, but also expanding things we have like parks, and trail networks, and community centres, youth wellness hubs” are proactive measures that will help people and, down the line, save money.

The Green plan for mental health and addictions would expand care under OHIP, as well as create a three-digit “crisis response” phone line” with specially trained staff, while also providing more training to Telehealth Ontario’s staff.

It also promises to reduce wait lists for children to 30 days or less, while also providing more help to Indigenous-led clinics and healing programs and would also declare the opiod crisis a public health emergency to free up more funds.

The Green party also supports decriminalizing drug use and creating more safe consumption sites.

“Our vision is to transform mental health care in Ontario to ensure people requiring care receive the services they need when and where they need them from a system that is affordable, accessible, comprehensive, and easy to navigate,” the Green platform says.

“Ontario Greens know that if we are hampered by high costs and inaccessible mental health care services, people and communities pay the price. The pandemic and the challenges of a changing climate are putting a strain on our mental health.”

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy