Canada is about to get its first-ever national mental health strategy – a massive report that may persuade Prime Minister Stephen Harper that his government must return Ottawa to a lead role on health care.
I have been critical of Stephen Harper; I think he often takes a short-sighted, cynical policy track that favours his Party’s interest over his country’s. Like most politicians, these two things have bled into one in his mind. I don’t, however, think he does this out of malice – Stephen Harper genuinely feels that might makes right, that people left to fend for themselves fare best and that ideologies other than his own are threatening. Harper’s heart is in the right place – it’s his head that needs to follow suit by seeking out and acknowledging the facts and making a conscious effort to develop evidence-based policy.
I believe PM Harper really does care about mental health issues; it’s not an abstract policy file to him but something that hits home. Like most people, though, he doesn’t fully get mental health. If you’re tough enough, common wisdom suggests, if you’re focused enough and willing to do whatever it takes, you can bend reality to your will. You can win the race, become Prime Minister, even will away depression and anxiety. It’s a wishful theory, but it’s just not true.
Society, the “body politic,” is just that – a system of interconnected parts where minute hits felt anywhere impact everywhere, whether we recognize this or not. Take post-traumatic stress disorder – what the mind does to get the body through conflict has long-term repercussions. Whether it’s a soldier coming back from war, a child who has been bullied or someone who has faced discrimination in the workplace for any reason, the accumulative impact of these experiences doesn’t build resiliency and social/emotional empathy – it attacks confidence, fosters aggression and depression and significantly impedes performance - especially innovative performance.
Multiply that impact across communities, cities, provinces, the world – you end up with people who can’t function in society and live on the streets, aggressive drivers who aren't mindful of the traffic around them, bitter bosses and under-performing employees. You end up with people who only know how to solve problems through aggression, rather than compromise. In a nutshell, that’s the root of the challenges we are facing globally; it’s a crisis that simply turning people loose or micro-managing them cannot solve.
“This is an ubiquitous Canadian problem and an ubiquitous global problem,” said David Goldbloom, a psychiatrist and chairman of the MHCC. “There are significant barriers – in the health-care system, in the workplace and in the community.”
Stephen Harper’s Legacy
This, then, is Stephen Harper’s true leadership moment. What happens on the mental health front will define his legacy; either he can be the Prime Minister that builds a national solution that will positively and proactively assist generations of Canadians (and potentially be copied by other nations), or he will be remembered as the Prime Minister who saw a slide in civility, social cohesion and general mental health on his watch.
If Harper is willing to look past some of his own concerns about firewalls and collaboration, he can go down in history as the Conscious Nixon who went to the China of mental illness. He can align his fiscally conservative sensibilities not to cut and isolate services, but blend them together into an efficient, cohesive, centrally-coordinated mental health system facilitated by the best modern technology – and Canadian technology companies – have to offer.
A centralized national health and mental health system is good policy. It makes for good politics, too. Being the architect of such a system would also define Stephen Harper as one of the most visionary leaders in Canadian, perhaps global history. A powerful legacy to leave behind, but one that can only be reached by empowering and connecting others.
If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far – move forward together.