PUSLINCH – Mental health supports, intertwined with education, was a hot topic at a Wellington-Halton Hills all candidates debate Monday evening.
The debate, hosted by the Puslinch Optimist Club and the South Wellington Community Lions Club, took place virtually on May 16.
Five of the provincial parties were represented, with over 30 members of the public in attendance.
Candidates in attendance were Progressive Conservative candidate incumbent MPP Ted Arnott, Liberal candidate Tom Takacs, NDP candidate Diane Ballantyne, Green Party candidate Ryan Kahro and Stephen Kitras of the New Blue Party.
The event format allowed attendees to ask questions directly of the candidates.
Many issues were raised on Monday evening, but notably mental health supports among youth and its relation to education was a recurring theme of the debate.
Abby Graham, a student at Centre Wellington District High School, asked candidates what they would do to reduce wait times for organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
“As a youth living in a rural community, I’ve seen firsthand how rural communities lack mental health supports, especially in comparison to larger cities [with] one of the biggest problems being wait times,” Graham said.
Arnott recognized there’s been a significant increase in the number of people with mental health struggles, but noted these struggles predate the pandemic.
“We know that, and there had been waitlists that have been an ongoing challenge for a number of years,” he said.
“The Progressive Conservative government has made a significant commitment to improve mental health services across the province,” he added. “And I know that all the political parties agree that we need to do more.”
He said the province needs to focus and target its resources, particularly on youth, and ensure those services are available to them, either through coordination with schools or other community services like CMHA.
Living in a rural community, Ballantyne said access to mental health care is not what it should be.
“Ford cut funding by $330 million specifically for mental health, cut supports to overdose prevention even though it’s a crisis and he cut $800 million to education during the pandemic, even though we knew that our young people were suffering,” she noted.
Ballantyne said the NDP will be putting mental health under OHIP so that people can access the mental health care they need with their OHIP card instead of their credit card.
To broaden the scope of access in rural communities, she said the party will be funding primary care doctors, nurses and community health to be trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, in addition to $10 million to go into a mobile crisis service.
Takacs said the Liberal Party is going to ensure no student has to wait for critical mental health support by hiring 1,000 more mental health workers for students and staff and making mental health first aid training more accessible to staff.
“The mental health issue is something that the Ontario Liberal Party is serious about and we’re not going to spend $10 billion on a concrete highway when we need to look at our health care system, our mental health situation, our education,” he said.
Kahro said the Green Party also intends to expand OHIP to include regulated mental health care providers “who are presently out of reach for so many Ontarians.”
She added the party will expand treatment options for people with complex needs.
In the party’s plan to create a mental health care system that’s “affordable, accessible, comprehensive and easy to navigate,” it will increase access to publicly funded mental health care, including mental health services in schools, teaching mental health curriculum, providing education to parents through organizations like CMHA and through additional funding.
“What is really important, I think, for everyone to realize right now is we are just starting the mental health crisis,” Kahro said.
Kitras noted the province’s health system is structured around wait times, which he stated is a bureaucratic system and doesn’t address the problems.
“I’m afraid that asking for more monies and promising more monies will probably fall on deaf ears because our medical system is broken and we cannot even fund what we already do well,” he explained.
“As the New Blue candidate, I understand the problem with mental health, and I would advocate for it strongly and so that it can be done in rural communities.”
Online learning impact
Turning to Arnott, one member of the public referenced curriculum changes, asking why online learning is becoming optional after two years of remote learning, taking into consideration the mental health concerns that have stemmed from it.
Recognizing the pandemic has been particularly difficult for young people, Arnott said the province needs “to move forward with any curriculum changes on a careful basis, ensuring that the system is ready for them as we go forward.”
In terms of mental health supports, he said while there are programs out there, the province needs to find ways to improve them.
“Clearly there is a crisis in mental health for young people in particular … and I think working with school boards, teachers and parents, we will be able to address it better,” he said.
“But I also think one of the most important priorities coming out of the pandemic is to have a comprehensive plan to help students who have fallen behind to catch up and reach their full potential,” he added.
“And to me, that should be one of the highest priorities for the provincial government, for the Ministry of Education and for the school system as a whole.”
As a teacher of 27 years in the Upper Grand District School Board, Ballantyne said the crisis that exists in schools right now is not about the learning loss.
“There is learning loss, don’t get me wrong,” she explained. “But the crisis that is in our schools is in mental health.
“And the kinds of cuts that we’ve experienced during the pandemic demonstrates that there is a lack of concern for what our children need in order to heal from the trauma that they have experienced throughout this pandemic.”
Ballantyne said the NDP will be investing more in schools to put them at the centre of the community with the wraparound services they need and lowering class sizes so that students have extra supports.
Kitras noted parents have faced large amounts of pressure to be able to balance their jobs while supporting their children through school over the past two years.
“They were left abandoned by the Ford government in the lockdowns,” he said.
“And basically, parents have felt as a group that they are the missing link and no one is listening to them, and they are not empowered in the system.”
He said the system needs more money, but that it also needs to get back to the basics of the education and trust of parents and his party his listening to those parents.
Takacs said the Liberal Party will scrap the online educational program, cap the size of the classrooms to 20 students for all grades, hire 10,000 more teachers, reinstate Grade 13 as an optional fifth year of high school, and offer classes on mental health, financial literacy, and taxes to get students ready to go into the workforce.
Kahro said the Green Party would improve the funding model for education, strengthening in-school learning, make equity a pillar of public education, support children with disabilities and improve access to post-secondary education.
“Online learning was a massive fail, and not because everyone didn’t try their hardest,” she said.
“Parents were working 200%, teachers working 200%, kids were working 200%. It is not an avenue to teach children online learning.”