Steven Soos. DON RICKERS

MP Dean Allison sponsors petition on mental health

Social activist Steve Soos told Pelham Council last week that one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem over their lifetime, and that the economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated at $51 billion per year, including health care costs, lost productivity, and reductions in health-related quality of life. He approached council for support of his federal petition, e-3351, calling on the House of Commons to launch a study in the Standing Committee on Health (HESA) pertaining to the declaration of a national emergency on mental health.

“Pelham council was extremely supportive with the original call [to have the Region declare a state of emergency,] and now we’re simply taking it to the federal level,” said Soos.

This federal petition is Soos’ second attempt at having a state of emergency declared. He and Niagara Falls Councillor Wayne Campbell sold 11 of the 12 Niagara municipalities on the concept earlier in the year, with Lincoln the sole holdout. The request failed at the Regional level, where an alternative motion was drafted and received approval.

Undaunted, Soos has made the petition a focus of his online interview program True Politics, which hosts a variety of personalities and perspectives, drawing mostly on regional politicians and social activists for the homeless, unemployed, and substance-addicted.

With a goal of bring mental health into the national spotlight, Soos is perhaps most concerned about the damage close to home.

“Suicide and self-harm in Niagara is higher than the provincial average, and over 14 percent of our secondary students have indicated that they have seriously considered committing suicide. That’s alarming,” he said.

Soos described how the national Kids Help Phone crisis line had 1.9 million usages before the pandemic, and 4 million today. “That’s a huge jump,” he told council. “These are our young people—our kids, our grandkids.”

Mayor Marvin Junkin commented after Soos’s presentation that “the effects of the current pandemic are going to be felt for months, if not years—mental stress that everyone has endured over the last year, and obviously for a little bit longer into the future.”

Councillor Wayne Olson was supportive of Soos’s effort, saying that he had noticing “Pelham residents complaining about the sense of isolation that they feel, a sense of loss and hopelessness—this is a huge issue.”

Olson put forward an amendment to councillor Marianne Stewart’s original motion of support, directing the Town Clerk to circulate the endorsement to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of the federal Standing Committee on Health, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, the provincial Minister of Health, local MPs and MPPs, and the councils of Niagara Region and local municipalities. The amended motion passed unanimously, as did the original motion.

“I would like to express my gratitude to Pelham Town Council for their support of Petition e-3351, and their continued support for mental health in our community,” Soos told the Voice. He added that Thorold also unanimously endorsed the petition last week, and on June 1 Councillor Campbell will introduce the motion at the Niagara Falls council meeting. Soos said he will be presenting to West Lincoln Council on May 25, and has been in contact with the councils in Port Colborne, Fort Erie, and St. Catharines.

Dean Allison, the Member of Parliament for Niagara West. who is sponsoring the petition, said, “It’s a great opportunity to continue to raise awareness on the issue. I don’t think that anyone would disagree that there’s a mental health crisis. Every party in Parliament understands it—they’re hearing it from their constituents. Will members have a problem supporting the wording? I don’t know. But I think it’s important, and we need to get on board with it. So let’s just get it out there, regardless of who supports it, or who doesn’t. We need to have the conversation.”

Phone calls from Niagara business people who are fearful of losing everything have been regularly received by Allison, and he is quick to point out the marginalized employees in service industries like hospitality and tourism, who haven’t been able to work at all for the better part of a year.

“I’m reaching out to the parliamentary health committee, trying to get something on the agenda around this issue,” said Allison. “They may decide not to call it a national health emergency, but the whole point is that we need them to figure out ways that we can do a better job dealing with mental health.”

Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin is one political leader in Niagara who has thrown vocal support behind Soos’ petition.

“As a politician, I recognize that the lockdowns are necessary, to a point,” he wrote. “I also recognize that they come with huge social costs, because of the isolation and loneliness they instill. The true cost may not be fully appreciated until several years from now. Soaring rates of drug overdoses and drug-related deaths, huge increases in child abuse cases and domestic violence…all these things point to citizens that have become mentally fatigued, and are having an extremely hard time coping with the daily grind of existence in a pandemic. This group — and it is a very large group — needs our added assistance.”

Mental health is a human issue, not a [political] party one,” insisted Soos. “It touches the lives of Canadians and Niagara residents from all walks of life.”

Soos is hoping that 10,000 signers will support his petition, which is available at: https://petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-3351