MUSKOKA – Municipal councils have a greater impact on physical and mental health issues than they may realize, says the YWCA of Muskoka’s Suzanne Witt-Foley.
YWCA of Muskoka’s Suzanne Witt-Foley explains the importance of municipal policy-making when it comes to mental health during a District of Muskoka council meeting on Nov. 12.
Witt-Foley made a presentation to District of Muskoka councillors on Nov. 12 about health issues within the community and what they can do to help.
Witt-Foley, who has lived in Muskoka for about 12 years, has worked in mental health promotion for her entire career. She has worked with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as well as the school board, public health and others.
“We have some big issues to work on,” she said. “We know that living conditions in Muskoka – social and economic conditions – have a direct relationship with the health and mental well-being of our residents.”
She placed a spotlight on councillors when she noted that the policies they debate about housing, finance, education and transportation shape the way residents live. Those policies also affect opportunities for mental well-being.
She played a five-minute video created in Sudbury about the social determinants of health. A dearth of education, sustainable employment and social supports, for example, can force an individual into poverty, which can in turn lead them to unhealthy lifestyles.
The video illustrated how these societal issues can negatively affect an individual’s health and ultimately burden the health-care system thereby costing taxpayers millions of dollars. But councillors can help prevent these issues by putting policies in place to support education, employment and social well-being.
Witt-Foley explained that while the video was not locally created, the issues were equally important to the Muskoka community.
“And although the video focuses on physical health issues, I want you to keep in the back of your mind that the concept equally applies to our community’s mental health as well,” she said.
She said the global economic challenges over the last five years have hit men and women in Muskoka hard. And women have been most at risk.
Witt-Foley explained health policy and research has now recognized that women experience more adverse conditions than men for reasons that include greater responsibility for raising children and completing housework, lower earnings, increased workplace discrimination, less full-time work and lower eligibility for unemployment benefits.
“Single women are the largest demographic living in poverty,” she said.
And mental health concerns around the world are on the rise. And experts are now calling for a joint effort to address mental health disorders, which are the leading cause of suffering and disability, said Witt-Foley.
Mental health disorders, she said, cost Canada about $50 billion each year in lost productivity. And a provincial report said the financial burden related to mental illness and addiction in Ontario is more than 1.5 times greater than that related to cancer and more than seven times that of all infectious diseases, she said.
She also stated that one in five people suffers from a mental health issues and 43 per cent of people will experience a mental health problem within their lifetime.
“These rates are astounding,” said Witt-Foley. “And, in addition, women are 1.5 times more likely to experience depression than men, and a significantly greater proportion of Ontario women have experienced a mental illness than men.”
She said it was time to get a handle on Muskoka’s mental health.
Witt-Foley explained that the YWCA of Muskoka is offering a new program funded through a Healthy Communities grant to area municipalities called Knowing Her Mind. The program would include workshops for each area municipal staff and council at no charge.
She provided each councillor with an information sheet about the project and promised to follow up with a phone call in future to discuss how to move forward with it.
The workshop would touch on what makes living in Muskoka unique, what the risk factors for residents are, and what factors benefit mental health and well-being. Workshop leaders would also discuss the impact council decision-making has on mental health and well-being.
“Some of the issues are complex and complicated, and they will take time to address,” said Witt-Foley. “We can have a tremendous impact by simply understanding the issues, leveraging our creativity and drawing upon the many assets from within our community.”
She encouraged each councillor to take the issue seriously.
“Mental well-being within all of our communities is a front-and-centre topic that we can’t afford to ignore,” she added.