The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) network consists of 30 branches across the province that provide community-based clinical and social services to Ontarians living with mental health and addictions issues. CMHAs recognize that mental health is influenced by many factors including life experiences, workplace or other environments, and the social and economic conditions that shape our lives. These social and economic conditions are called the social determinants of health and are some of the most important factors that impact on mental and physical health.
It’s with this perspective in mind that our network of CMHA branches in Ontario wish to voice concern about the provincial government’s proposed reforms to certain definitions that would impact an individuals’ access to social assistance. In particular, the government’s proposal for “providing clarity to the system around who qualifies for [the Ontario Disability Support Program] in the future and looking at aligning Ontario’s new definition of ‘disability’ more closely with federal government guidelines.”1
We understand that the government is currently exploring the possibility of aligning the provincial definition of disability to the definition used by the Canada Pension Plan. Since nearly half of all Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) recipients have a mental health disability, any changes to the definition that make it more difficult to access benefits has a direct impact on the population we serve.
The current definition of disability under ODSP, as specified under the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, 1997, is flexible, inclusive, and sufficient. This definition was the product of much deliberation and stakeholders agree that it should not be changed. The definition is flexible enough to accommodate the needs of episodic disabilities such as mental illnesses, where individuals often experience periods of illness surrounded by periods of recovery or wellness. In contrast, the federal definition is much more restrictive focusing primarily on permanent disabilities. Should an alignment with the federal definition be made, our local branches are extremely concerned that many individuals we serve will not be able to qualify for ODSP.
Furthermore, any future plan that makes it difficult to qualify for ODSP may result in people turning to Ontario Works (OW) for support. OW is a program that provides almost 40 per cent less income than ODSP. The result of more people relying on OW could lead to greater levels of poverty among people with disabilities, an already marginalized group. Long-term measures that further restrict benefits for people with mental health disabilities will not help the government reach its stated goal of ending “hallway medicine.” In fact, it will likely end up costing taxpayers even more money than is currently being allocated to ODSP benefits.
Through our provincial office, CMHA Ontario Division, branches have had the opportunity to engage with government officials to voice these concerns. Moving forward, the 30 CMHA branches would be pleased to offer our assistance in the redesign of ODSP, especially with respect to any changes to the current definition of disability.