Mental Illness and a Sense of Community

Yesterday, the Ottawa Citizen’s Elizabeth Payne summarized the results of Bridging the Gap, a report on Ottawa’s community well-being. The report can be found here: http://communityhealthandwellbeing.org/sites/default/files/Bridging%20the%20Gap.pdf and this is the link to Payne’s article: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/taking-the-measure-of-fat-city-ottawa-affluent-and-troubled-report-finds

A key aspect of this report, which uses the Canadian Index of Wellbeing as a measure, is that, in the past three years, Ottawans’ sense of community has declined. That is, fewer people feel the support of a community from their neighbours and neighbourhood, from their city. While this score has only decreased from 65% to 59.8%, this is still worrying and so I ask myself, “What do I do to improve the sense of community in my own neighbourhood?”

Most people who know me at all know that I travel back and forth a lot between Ottawa and Toronto and, in fact, I have homes in both cities, albeit a small home in Toronto. That small home in Toronto is my way of managing being away from what I consider to be my own home so much.

In my neighbourhood, I don’t even know the neighbours beyond my small block and so relying on them in a physical emergency – like being locked out of the house – would seem untenable. So, in other words, for all my travels, my actual world is very small – and very prosperous.

Payne’s report is a reminder that, in Ottawa, there are two worlds: that of the prosperous city of which my neighbourhood is a microcosm and a city of the poor. Bridging the Gap tells us that the fact that the poor of the city do not have a community is beginning to affect their health.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in Ottawa citizens aged 20 to 44. The rate of mood disorders in the city is higher than average, and has gotten higher in the past three years. Only 22% of students in Grades 7 to 12 meet physical activity guidelines and 38% of those who rely on the Ottawa Food Bank are children. Low-income citizens are spending 50% and more of their income on housing.

If I do anything at all to relieve the plight of the city’s poor, I do it at work. Even without the benefit of “data analysis”, I can confirm that it is the poor who are most often in need of support and treatment because of mental illness because I see this in my interview room every working day. And so my colleagues and I regularly ask. “How do you support yourself?” “Do you have enough to eat?” “Do you have a bus pass?” “Can you afford medication?” By and large we know that most of our patients are not wealthy and we work to offset that disadvantage. Often the patients we see are future-oriented with realistic plans and dreams and one blessed day in late June five (FIVE!!) of our patients learned that they had been accepted into the university or college program they most wanted.

I hope, in the long run, that my efforts at work will make up for the fact that I’m not doing much in the poor neighbourhoods close to my rich neighbourhood to make a difference, for clearly, as Elizabeth Payne points out, those of us who are able must work to build our communities. Who knew that the expression “It takes a village to raise a child.” Is another way of saying that a rich city may find it difficult to figure this out. Payne’s article suggested that the authors of Bridging the Gap hoped the report would provoke dialogue in the municipal election campaigns. Good idea!

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