by Kimberley Love

So was the October shooting rampage at Parliament Hill an act of madness or an act of terrorism? The despised Bill C-51 has now passed. Both the Liberals and the NDP have grudgingly accepted that the Bill should be amended – not revoked – but it's worrying to see how a few unsettling incidents can provoke a clamping-down of the rights of citizens. The trouble is, of course, that it's hard to have any kind of rational debate about an event that threatened both lives that matter to us, and symbols we care about deeply.

But if we're prepared to talk about the so-called terrorist threat, then it's high time we also had a rational conversation about mental health. This is the 64th annual Mental Health Week for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

A few years ago I was chosen to represent rural communities at a national multi-partisan conference. As part of my preparation, I contacted municipal leaders across Bruce and Grey counties, and asked each one what they considered the most important issue facing their community.

One long-serving municipal politician paused for a moment, then said "mental health". He proceeded to catalogue the ways in which mental health issues can ravage families and gut communities.

As Canadians, we are a thousand times more likely to be murdered by non-terrorist than by a terrorist. A Canadian woman is far more likely to be beaten or murdered by her domestic partner than to be caught up in any kind of terrorist act.

So here's a bold idea for Mental Health Week. While we're on the subject of public safety, let's follow the lead of my municipal friend who talked about investments in mental health.

The reasons to invest in mental health, after all, are about hope... not fear

Firstly, mental health issues limit, unnecessarily, the potential of too many Canadians to live happy productive lives as contributing members of their families their workplaces, and their society. How many Canadians, exactly, you wonder? The statistics here are jaw-dropping. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20% of Canadians wrestle with some form of mental illness or personality disorder. Many of these conditions can be improved through supportive therapy or a combination of therapy and medication. But the obstacles to treatment are enormous. Even if the sufferer is willing to seek help (and it is so stigmatized that many will not reach out), and even if diagnosis and care are available (and they can be hard to find), and even if medications or therapy are available (and sometimes they are not), then many of those who require the support cannot afford to access it.

The fact is that most of the options for mental health medication and therapy sit outside the funding framework of our public healthcare program, and the great majority of people go undiagnosed and untreated.

We long ago judged it unacceptable to leave an economic segment of our society without access to medical care. By what ethical principle can we justify leaving all these people hurting unnecessarily, except for the few who feel they can afford private-sector care?

Should we be investing more – as my municipal friend asserted? In 2011, Canada spent just over $5 per capita on mental health. New Zealand, by comparison, spent just under $200 per capita. I don't know how much they're investing in anti-terrorism initiatives, but I suspect they have their relative priorities in place.

What are we spending on anti-terrorism? The numbers are murky, but here's one to remember: $3.1 BILLION. That's how much money that simply went missing from the Harper government's budget to fight terrorism. Missing. Unaccounted for. Certainly there's more money that just disappeared from the anti-terrorism budget than has been spent on mental health in anyone's memory.

My municipal friend put his finger on one of the crises that impact us in a real way: socially and economically. Mental health issues are a root cause of many publicly-borne cost burdens in our society. Our economic productivity is impacted by mental health. Our emergency wards are burdened with distraught victims of self-inflicted wounds. Our foodbanks, homeless shelters and addiction treatment facilities are frequented by people who did not get the mental health care they needed in time to keep their lives from spiraling downward. Our police forces are overburdened with situations that are driven not by criminal intent, but by mental breakdown. Our correctional systems are overburdened with people whose troubled careers bear the unmistakable trace of undiagnosed, untreated mental health disorders. And according to statistics collected by Canada's Department of Justice "each year Canadians collectively spend $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence." By what economic principle can we justify paying for all these symptoms without investing in solving the root cause?

And third, think of all the heartbreaking stories you know about (or suspect) of beaten wives, abused children, and family members walking on eggshells around a person who needs help. And think of the horrific consequences when one of those people, like a Marc Lepine, gets their hands on an assault rifle. Mental health problems are everyone's problems.

I agree that the federal government has a responsibility to keep Canadian's safe. But we should be careful not to be swept along in a wave of emotion about the "terrorist" threat at the expense of a reasoned discussion about where the real threats to our safety originate and how our public investments should be managed accordingly.

It's too much to hope that in our lifetime we can get to the roots of jihadist violence. And undoubtedly we'll need ongoing investment to deal with this issue responsibly. But it's not too much to hope that we can get to the roots of mental health problems for many Canadians. Maybe its time we started to compare the return on investment. We're overdue for an honest dialogue about where an additional dollar would produce the greater good for the greater number of Canadians.

Kimberley Love is the Liberal Party of Canada candidate for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound