Let’s get out and vote!

With a provincial election just days away, we can reflect on how far democracy has come in Alberta in the last decade.

For most of its existence, Alberta had only two parties in power (each for more than 35 consecutive years). But in 2015 and in 2019 the governing parties changed in rapid succession. Albertans started claiming their right to have choice in who best represents their interests.

In the 2023 provincial elections, there are fourteen parties running candidates. Two parties have candidates in all ridings (Alberta New Democrat and United Conservative) while two other parties (Wildrose Loyalty Coalition and Green) are running candidates in about half the provincial ridings, giving Albertans diversity of candidates and choice in representation.  

On the campaign trail, we see the leaders of the two front-running parties passionate about policy, committed to winning and not afraid to make bold promises. They are also both women – another sign of progress. But healthy democracies need more than strong leaders, they also need engaged citizens – people who are willing to participate in the political process and elect decision-makers who can best represent them. 

There are many factors that affect how people choose to vote. Voter demographics such as socioeconomic status, gender, education, religion and racial identity all play a role. Some people vote for a party from a sense of allegiance or loyalty, sometimes generational within families. 

Others vote on the basis of the policies and platforms unveiled by political parties particularly related to issues that are most important to them such as healthcare, education, jobs or income. Still others consider the personal appeal of the party leader, the strength of their local candidate or their values or emotions.

Economic factors also play into people’s voting decisions. Economic upswings tend to favour the incumbent party whereas an economic downturn brings about change in power, even when economic fortunes are determined by global events and forces outside the influence of provincial governments such as oil prices, collapse of financial institutions or pandemics. Finally, people may choose to vote strategically, casting a ballot for their second choice knowing that their first-choice candidate does not have a chance of winning. 

Given all these different factors affecting voting, how is one to decide? 

First, you have to cut out the distractions – campaign advertisements that play on emotions such as fear and anger, media stories that focus on leaders’ perceived personality strengths or flaws and fluctuations in the economy that cannot possibly be influenced by provincial politics. 

“There are resources you can turn to in making your choice.”

Second, you have to identify issues that truly matter to you and your fellow Albertans and inform yourself of how each party plans to address them if elected to power. Finally, you have to make a calculation as to how likely the party leader will be effective and sincere in following through on promises. If this sounds like a difficult task, it is. Exercising your civic duty of voting is a serious responsibility.

There are resources you can turn to in making your choice. Political parties have their election platforms on their websites for the general public to access. On-line tools such as CBC’s Vote Compass can help you asses which major political parties align with your views on election issues that are important to you. You can also reread previous columns of The Engaged Citizen (accessible online) to remind yourself of evidence for various social and health policies that political parties may be proposing. 

In addition to getting out and voting, we need to make known our support for electoral systems and political practices that strengthen democracy. For example, our flawed first-past-the-post electoral system allows parties who may receive less than 40% of the popular vote to have 100% of the power (think about the Liberal majority win in the 2015 federal election). 

Proportional representation is an alternative model that ensures fair representation for smaller parties who may garner for example 10% of the total vote, but only win a single seat in the legislature. This electoral system leads to increased collaboration and innovation in policy-making and less polarization among parties and voters.

Party practices that encourage women and people from diverse backgrounds to stand as candidates, and support them to win their campaigns, also benefit the democratic process. When people from traditionally underrepresented groups are at the governing table, they help make decisions that improve justice and fairness, helping create an equitable society that benefits all. When people see their identities represented, their sense of political efficacy increases and civic participation receives a boost. When diverse perspectives are represented, problem-solving is enhanced and creative solutions emerge. Democracy in Alberta has come a long way since the province was created in 1905. But there is still a lot of work to do. On May 29th, no matter which party gets elected, let’s make sure that democracy emerges the clear winner.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the RMOToday.ca on May 18, 2023. Photo credit: <someone> on <link>

Higher education is worth the investment

Fewer students are enrolling in postsecondary education since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing tuition, high debt loads and uncertain COVID-19 learning environments are discouraging young people from pursuing higher education. But what are they missing out on and what is society losing by this disturbing trend?

We know that people with higher levels of education – be it from university, college or polytechnic – have higher earning power throughout their lifetime. They have better access to housing, nutrition, and healthcare and live longer, healthier lives. They can afford better educational opportunities for their children and for those who start off with few advantages, postsecondary education represents the best chance at breaking the cycle of poverty.

Society too benefits. Increased levels of innovation and creativity are seen in countries where citizens have better access to higher education. People who earn more money as a result of postsecondary education pay more taxes throughout their lifetime, more than paying back the public investment made in their education. 

Despite this, government funding for universities and colleges has been decreasing steadily. In Alberta, we have seen a 31% drop in funding over the last 5 years. Operating grants provided to universities by the provincial government has dropped from 81% to below 50% since the mid-1980s. This is in contrast to the province of Quebec where funding has increased by 16% in the last five years and the province funds well over half the operating budgets of universities and colleges.

When funding is cut, postsecondary institutions resort to tuition hikes and recruitment of high-paying international students to make up the shortfall. High tuition fees are the biggest barriers to entry into higher education for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This only increases the divide between haves and have nots in our society. Also, inequality on a global level is worsened when exorbitant fees are collected from students coming from lower-income countries, like India and Nigeria, to subsidize Canadian students.

When public funding is reduced, postsecondary institutions increasingly turn to corporations and private donors to fund operations. This results in the public good of higher education becoming more corporatized. 

With corporate-style management, high-salaried executives, managers and consultants are hired by postsecondary institutions while cuts are made to operational and faculty positions. Workers suffer from low pay and difficult work conditions, and retiring tenured faculty are replaced by sessional instructors without job security or benefits. Postsecondary institutions also become beholden to their funders allowing corporations and donors to become decision-makers on campus and set the research agenda of universities. 

Higher investment by governments and the introduction of a federal Post-Secondary Education Act can limit corporate and private donor control over universities and colleges. Principles such as universality, accessibility, comprehensiveness and public administration, similar to the Canada Health Act, can be specified in this legislation as well as freedom of speech protections for learners, researchers and workers.

“Several countries such as Norway, Denmark, Germany, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba provide free postsecondary education.”

Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976 acknowledging that education was an essential public good that needs to be accessible to all. Canadian officials recognized the right of every person to obtain free primary and secondary education, and promised free postsecondary education. Nearly 50 years later, the latter has not been realized. 

However, several countries such as Norway, Denmark, Germany, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba provide free postsecondary education. While there is huge disparity in wealth between some of these countries, what they have in common is the political will to act on the understanding that postsecondary education benefits their citizens and their societies.

Tuition fees are considered a regressive tax levied on students because those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds pay relatively more for their education than students from richer families. Progressive taxation on the other hand recognizes that corporations and the wealthy should pay their fair share for public goods like education which has benefited them in accumulating their wealth through their educated workforce.

Free tuition can also be paid for by restructuring current government spending on education tax credits and Registered Education Savings Plans that tend to benefit richer families. Students from low-income families are unable to take advantage of these initiatives and rely on student loans to finance their higher education. With loan interest included, indebted students pay two to three times more for their education than those who were able to pay for their education up front. 

Student loans need to be eliminated and replaced with non-repayable grants for students in need. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador eliminated student loans for an entire cohort of students in 2015 and this allowed them to contribute to the economy sooner upon graduation by starting businesses, working in jobs for which they were qualified and purchasing cars and houses – all milestones they would have had trouble achieving if they were weighed down by high debt loads.

If we don’t act now to bolster the ability of our young people to access postsecondary education, we risk negative economic and societal effects that will continue well into the future. While individual students enjoy the private returns of scholarship, society as a whole reaps the public rewards of wise investment in education.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on December 19, 2022. Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Alberta Health Services needs strengthening, not dismantling

During her campaign for leadership of the UCP party, Danielle Smith made clear her plans to overhaul Alberta Health Services (AHS). She threatened to fire the entire AHS board and appoint an interim health commissioner reporting directly to herself and the health minister. While concentrating power into her hands, she says she wants to decentralize health care delivery to local decision-makers.

To understand the implications of her proposals, we first need to understand the history of health care delivery in Alberta and how Alberta Health Services came about. 

In the early nineties, health services in Alberta were delivered by over 200 separate administrative bodies including hospital, long-term care and public health boards. In 1994, these were replaced by seventeen regional health authorities and then further consolidated to nine a decade later. 

Alberta Health Services was established in 2008 by the conservative government of the time as Alberta’s single health authority, making it Canada’s first integrated health care system. Providing health services to more than 4.3 million Albertans, AHS remains the largest health authority in the country.  AHS is governed by a single board of directors, and carries out the health mandate set by Alberta Health (the provincial ministry of health) while operating at arm’s length from government.

A single structure for health care governance and delivery has its advantages. A single authority can streamline health care services thus eliminating duplication and addressing gaps in services. This approach increases access to services for rural, remote and difficult-to-reach populations and improves equity in service delivery across the province. Administrative efficiencies are created and accountability is increased when governance is limited to a singular board.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the effectiveness of Alberta’s health service delivery system to the test. A review of Alberta’s COVID-19 pandemic response conducted by KPMG in 2020 highlighted the structural advantages of a single integrated provincial authority. 

The review found that decision-making was swift and AHS had the ability to make system wide-changes to increase capacity in acute care beds province-wide and assure patients in small communities that ICUs in bigger cites would receive them. One set of leadership ensured one decision-making process and fair and equitable access to COVID-19 testing and treatment for all Albertans.

“Overhauling the health care system during multiple health care crises will be disastrous.”

With centralized procurement and distribution of PPE by AHS, health care workers even in remote parts of Alberta were supplied with high-quality PPE at all stages of the pandemic.  Similarly, distribution of COVID-19 testing kits, vaccines and medications to treat COVID-19 has been efficient and AHS has exercised its significant purchasing power leading to cost savings and efficiencies. 

AHS has health data from across the province and uses real-time evidence for pandemic modeling and informed decision-making. As a single health authority, AHS has been effective in creating and disseminating treatment pathways for COVID-19 infections to health care providers, ensuring that all Albertans receive the most up-to-date, evidence-informed treatment.

As we enter the third winter of the pandemic, we are facing a surge in COVID-19 cases as well as resurgence of severe influenza and children’s respiratory illnesses. Hospitals are filling up, staffing shortages loom large and burnout among health care workers is high. At the same time, Albertans are finding it increasingly difficult to find family doctors in the community. 

Overhauling the health care system during multiple health care crises will be disastrous. It will lead to unnecessary added burdens for staff and remove the focus from providing quality patient care. Instead, now is the time to strengthen Alberta Health Services. 

The provincial government needs to implement policy to increase recruitment and retention of health care workers. It needs to invest more in training health care professionals so that current and future gaps can be addressed and the government needs to build respectful relationships with organizations representing health care workers so they continue working in our province. 

AHS too needs to do its part in reviewing and learning from its handling of the pandemic response. Patients delayed seeking care for serious symptoms like chest pain early in the pandemic and this led to poor outcomes and preventable deaths. Messaging to the public about seeking care for urgent conditions should have been stronger and clearer in the early days of the pandemic. 

AHS also needs to increase connections to local communities and work with them to identify local issues and provide public health solutions that are context-specific. Public health doctors are concentrated in big cities and not on the ground in rural and remote areas to understand the unique circumstances of these communities. 

The health care deficit has worsened during the pandemic as surgeries were cancelled, cancer screening declined and opioid-related deaths increased. AHS needs to focus on increasing resources to address these care gaps and ramp up services in surgery, cancer treatment and screening, and addictions and mental health treatment.  

Supporting and strengthening health care is going to be a key issue in the spring provincial elections. All Albertans want a high-quality health care system that is there for them when they need it.  Any party hoping to win the election will have to have a robust plan to strengthen – not dismantle – our health care system.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on Nov 17, 2022. Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Primary health care in crisis

Primary care is the corner stone of a high-functioning health care system. Yet, many Albertans are struggling to find a family doctor, or if they are lucky enough to have a family doctor, to get an appointment in a timely fashion.

In response to this crisis, the UCP government announced the Modernizing Alberta’s Primary Health Care System (MAPS) initiative last month to identify immediate and long-term improvements to our primary care system. 

In Canada, primary care is provided mostly by family physicians with a small percentage of Canadians seeing registered nurses, physician assistants or nurse practitioners as their regular primary care provider. Primary care comprises services that prevent disease, promote health, treat common illnesses and manage ongoing medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and mental health conditions.

Primary care providers are usually the first point of contact with the health care system for most people. In addition to diagnosing and treating medical conditions, they also co-ordinate specialist care and treatment for patients. 

Importantly, primary care providers have trusted, long-term relationships with their patients and get to know them in fullness of their lives – often providing health services from cradle to grave for patients in their community.

Studies show that patients who see a regular primary care provider have better long-term health than those who don’t.  They experience better access to health care, less duplications of tests and referrals and have fewer hospitalizations. Ultimately, they live longer and in better health.

What’s more – primary care provides all these benefits while at the same time lowering health care expenditures, increasing patient satisfaction and contributing to are more equal society.

But these benefits are available to fewer and fewer Albertans as the number of family physicians accepting new patients in our province has dropped by half in the last two years. 

“Currently, family medicine is experiencing the lowest interest among medical students”

If we are to reverse these trends, governments, health care organizations and ordinary citizens have to acknowledge the crisis in primary care and take action.

Governments need to invest adequate resources into primary care to build a strong and reliable foundation for the rest of the health care system. Resources include properly funding the provision of primary care through recognizing clinic overhead costs paid by family doctors and addressing the administrative burdens they face. Compensation also has to take into account the extra time and effort spent in the care of complex, fragile or socioeconomically disadvantaged patients. 

Currently, family medicine is experiencing the lowest interest among medical students with only 31% of medical students choosing family medicine training as their first choice upon graduation from medical school. Proper support, reimbursement and recognition can make the practice of primary care attractive and prestigious for young health professionals. 

Governments also need to invest in a robust primary care workforce plan that includes plans for training, recruiting and retaining primary health care providers. The shortage of primary care providers will only get worse as Alberta’s population ages and the number of older patients with multiple and complex medical problems grows.  More seats in medical schools, and increased access to training programs for nurse practioners, physician assistants and other providers of primary care are needed now in order to meet current and future demands.

Additionally, the thoughtful integration of nurse practitioners and physician assistants into community clinics will allow patients to have timely access, choice of primary care provider and the opportunity to build long-term relationships. Such an approach should allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform duties to the full extent of their training while at the same time providing support and pathways for referral to family physicians or specialists when required.

System changes to create multiple access points to primary healthcare can also help patients get access to timely and appropriate care. Whether the patient accesses care through a pharmacist, a physiotherapist, a public health nurse or an emergency room doctor, they should receive the care and treatment they need in the moment, but with a reliable system in place to ensure co-ordination, collaboration and information transfer back to the patient’s primary care provider.

We are told that the UCP government’s MAPS advisory panels will report back in Spring 2023 with advice from strategic, Indigenous and international perspectives on primary care reform in the province. But with the swearing in of new party leader, Danielle Smith, and her own willful ideas about health care in Alberta, we are left wondering if this government will follow through on a thoughtful and collaborative approach to improving primary care that is desperately called for in our province. 

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on October 20, 2022. Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com.

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Food for a healthy planet and healthy people

Agricultural land covers 40% of the global land mass and food production accounts for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now more than ever we have to pay attention to how we eat in order to keep ourselves and our planet healthy.

Agriculture continues to encroach into forests and other carbon rich ecosystems and is the number one reason for biodiversity loss. Fertilization practices used in agriculture causes nitrogen and phosphorus loss into waterways triggering undesirable ecosystem changes.  Furthermore, potent greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere through rice farming and fermentation in the guts of livestock.

The Canadian federal government just completed consultations on a target of 30% reduction in greenhouse gases from fertilizer use. While this particular target and its implications for food production and food security has attracted controversy, it is indisputable that Canada needs a comprehensive food strategy that optimizes both human and planetary health.

Both over-nutrition and undernutrition are global health problems. Over 2 billion adults in the world are classified as obese or overweight, while at the same time, adults and children face starvation and nutritional deficiencies in some parts of the world. 

“Farmers have long been stewards of the land and have a crucial role to play in leading us in healthy and sustainable food production”

We have long known that overconsumption of calories, red meat and sugars in the Western diet causes diabetes, cancer and heart disease. If the entire global population adopted the Western diet, the demand for meat and dairy will also cause food production to exceed environmental boundaries on land use, freshwater use and greenhouse gas emissions.

To address both these issues, the EAT-Lancet report – written by 37 leading scientists from around the globe – recommends a mostly plant-based diet in order to optimize human health and environmental sustainability. The report calls for an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes and recommends meat and dairy in much smaller proportions.

The authors of the report predict that if there was global uptake of their recommendations, approximately 11 million premature adult deaths (or 1 in 5) could be prevented annually. While this would mean significant progress in population health, changing our eating patterns will not be enough to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. To limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will also need to change the way we farm.

Farmers have long been stewards of the land and have a crucial role to play in leading us in healthy and sustainable food production. We will need to support uptake of regenerative farming practices in larger numbers. These practices regenerate the soil for future use while increasing the nutrition density of foods and include methods such as reduced or no-till farming, planting cover crops, composting, and integrating animals into farms that grow plant crops. Regenerative practices allow farmers to reap the benefits of a healthier environment as well as increased crop health and productivity.  

Other policies that we need to adopt include stopping the expansion of farmland into carbon rich natural areas and focusing on improving productivity of existing agricultural lands. Precision farming techniques such as planting the right crop for the right environment and optimizing the timing and location for water and nutrient use can increase crop yields while minimizing nitrogen and phosphorus run-off in water and reducing water use.

Governments also have a key role to play in reorienting food systems. It is laudable that the most recent version of Canada’s Food Guide released in 2019 considers the health of the planet in its recommendations and is aligned with the EAT-Lancet report.

We now need policies to help Canadians adopt these guidelines. Taxation of unhealthy foods that are high in sugars or are highly processed, and subsidies for healthy, sustainable foods are needed.  More investment into the farming of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts will match food production levels to the largely plant-based diet that is recommended. 

We also need to call on our governments to implement policies that reduce food waste because discarded food contributes up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Such policies can include financial support for food rescue agencies as implemented by the Australian government, legislated composting for businesses generating organic waste as done in France or a ban on food retailers throwing away good quality food as practiced in Italy. 

As citizens we need to do our part as well to promote our own health and that of the planet. Following the EAT-Lancet diet for planetary health includes filling half our plates with fruits and vegetables, getting a quarter of calories from whole grain foods and reducing our consumption of fish and poultry to about 2 servings a week, our dairy consumption to the equivalent of 1 cup of milk per day and our red meat consumption to 1 serving a week. Choosing to be vegetarian or vegan, if that fits with cultural and personal values, will allow us to surpass the recommendations.

How we eat shapes both our own health and that of our life-sustaining planet. As such it is worth putting thought and effort into our everyday meals and our advocacy efforts with decision-makers. Bon appétit!

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on September 16, 2022. Photo credit: Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

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Cleaning up our act on plastic pollution

They are convenient, inexpensive and versatile but plastics are harming our health and our planet. Recognizing the damaging effects of plastic pollution, the federal government recently announced regulations limiting single use plastics. But they do not go far enough to protect human health or ensure environmental sustainability.

Eighty billion tons of plastics have been produced since the 1950s and less than 10% have been recycled. Plastics have found their way into the bodies of fish and birds, into our soil, water and air and even the human blood stream.

Studies on the health effects of plastics are difficult to conduct given that all humans on the planet are exposed to plastic pollution and control subjects are hard to find. But there is good evidence that some components of plastics are harmful to human health – infants and children are more vulnerable given their smaller body weights and developing brains.

Phthalates are chemical plasticizers used to increase the flexibility of plastic products. They can leach into food from containers or out of infant soothers or other soft plastic toys children put in their mouths. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine or hormonal systems of the body leading to obesity and insulin resistance and affect the human reproductive system in males and females resulting in infertility. Some phthalates are known to be carcinogens.

Th detrimental effects of plastics are also evident in the environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is well-known but it is only one of five plastic garbage patches found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Plastics take 100 to 1000 years to biodegrade and pollute our soil, water and air for a very long time. 

Plastic garbage breaks up into smaller pieces and are consumed by fish, birds and sea mammals. Toxic chemicals from plastics (lead, cadmium and mercury) get concentrated as the contaminants travel up the food chain, eventually reaching humans. 

“We need bolder regulation addressing a wider range of products with aggressive timelines …”

Plastic pollution is a global problem and requires a coordinated and concerted effort by all countries to reduce the number of plastic products manufactured, consumed and disposed worldwide. 

If we are to curb the harmful effects of plastics, we need governments to introduce regulations to reduce extraction of fossil fuels used in plastic production. Extraction and refining of fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Governments will have to be resolute in the face of lobbying from fossil fuel companies looking to shift their target market to plastic manufacturing as the demand for fossil fuels as an energy source declines.

Banning single use plastics can have an impact on plastic pollution but the recent regulations announced by the federal government are woefully inadequate, banning a limited number of single-use plastic products and addressing just 3% of annual plastic use in Canada with many rules not going into effect until 2025. 

We need bolder regulation addressing a wider range of products with aggressive timelines if we are to make any significant dent in Canada’s plastic pollution problem. In Denmark, the introduction of a tax paid for by retailers and manufacturers of single use plastids resulted in rapid decreases on over 70% of taxable plastic products.

Producers of plastics need to take responsibility for the reuse, recovery and recycling of their plastic products. When soft drink companies used to sell their products in glass bottles, they created and paid for a collection, cleaning and reusing system for their bottles as they were expensive to produce and there was an economic incentive to collect and reuse the containers. 

Since soft drink companies shifted to cheaper plastic containers, they have passed on the costs of collection and recycling to municipalities or other levels of government and have abdicated any corporate responsibility for the millions of tons of plastic pollution they create annually.

Extended Producer Responsibility shifts the onus back on the corporations that create plastic pollution to collect, recover, recycle or reuse their products. In Finland, for example, where all packagers or importers of packaged products were required by government policy to organize a collection and recycling system for plastic entering the markets, the recovery rate for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – a completely recyclable plastic – was 92%.

As consumers, we all have a role in reducing our use of plastic products by choosing non-plastic alternatives, reusing plastic products and reducing our overall consumption of material things. However, to make a significant reduction in global plastic pollution we have to make it clear to let all levels of government through our voting, letter-writing and other forms of citizen engagement that we want action to reduce plastic pollution and that we want it now.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on August 23, 2022. Photo credit: mali maeder on Pexels.com

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Rethinking our understanding of mental health and mental illness

Canadians were in a mental health crisis well before the COVID-19 pandemic. But as with many other things, the pandemic served to shine a spotlight on the depth and breath of this serious issue.

According to Statistics Canada, a shocking 1 in 3 Canadians suffers from mental illness during their lifetime. Five to 10 percent of Canadian children are said to have ADHD, over 10% of adults are reported to have a major episode of depression during their lifetime and 25% of adults are reported to have an anxiety disorder. 

But this has not always been the case. Before the 1970s, depression was a relatively rare condition and mainly associated with severe impairment and hospitalization. Bipolar disorder was even less common and attention deficit disorder did not exist at all.

Underlying today’s alarming mental illness statistics is a hidden epidemic of overdiagnosis of mental illness and overprescription of psychoactive medication to both adults and children. 

Much of what we are diagnosing and treating as mental illness today is the medicalization of normal life. Grief, emotional pain and being uncomfortable are a normal part of the human condition and are expected responses to life events such as the loss of a loved one or a stressful situation.

“There are no objective, scientific, or biological tests for psychiatric disorders”

Some of what we label as mental illness is a natural response to very difficult or unfair life circumstances. We characterize external problems such as poverty, oppression, or racism as internal problems requiring medication to “fix” the individual, rather than directing efforts at correcting the societal problems that put some people into situations that are toxic to their physical and mental health.

We know, for example, that Canadians in the lowest income bracket are 3 to 4 times more likely than the highest income Canadians to be labelled as suffering from mental illness. Data from the United States indicates that vulnerable populations are medicated with psychoactive medications at higher rates than the rest of the population. Children in foster care, those involved with the criminal justice system and black and Hispanic boys are systemically administered antipsychotics or other drugs to control their behaviour. 

There are no objective, scientific, or biological tests for psychiatric disorders. Difficulty in diagnosis of mental illness makes it easy for doctors and patients alike to confuse normal responses to difficult or toxic life situations with true mental illness. While physical ailments often have laboratory or imaging studies that can help confirm or refute a diagnosis, psychiatrists rely on symptom checklists based on the opinion of a few select psychiatrists.

Pharmaceutical companies have confounded the situation. Using sophisticated marketing techniques to manipulate study results, influence expert opinion and mislead the public, they have spun a story they want us to believe about mental illness. 

Even today many doctors and laypeople still think that chemical imbalances in the brain cause mental illness. But decades of neuroscience research have failed to find evidence to support the neurotransmitter imbalance theory, showing instead that psychoactive medications disturb rather than restore normal brain function.

Drugs provide a quick but temporary fix to mask or numb emotional pain and have serious side effects in the long-term. For a significant proportion of people psychoactive drugs are difficult to stop. So, how can we deal with mental health problems in a more evidence-based and less harmful way? 

Firstly, if we experience emotional pain or discomfort ourselves, we can accept that this might be a normal part of grieving a loss or facing a stressful situation. Most symptoms of anxiety and depression are time limited and are known to resolve spontaneously without medication. We can also lean into our social supports, connect with nature and participate in exercise – all interventions known to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Psychotherapy can also help alleviate many mental health problems.

Health care professionals have an important role in recognizing overdiagnosis and overprescribing in mental illness. They should base clinical decisions on good science and sound evidence while resisting undue influence of drug companies. Education for medical professionals needs to highlight the benefits of psychoactive medications in the subset of patients who will truly benefit, while also underlining that harms outweigh benefits in people with mild to moderate symptoms.

Communities can promote mental health by increasing social connectedness among residents, ensuring that no-one, particularly the elderly or others living on their own, suffer from loneliness and isolation. Municipalities can design towns and cities to bring people together, provide natural spaces for recreation and opportunities for safe and accessible physical activity.

Provincial and federal governments have the obligation to provide access to adequate mental health care, including psychotherapy, so that people have safe and accessible alternatives to pharmaceuticals. Policies also need to be enacted to ensure citizens receive resources to live a healthy life – adequate family incomes, decent housing, affordable education and healthy working conditions.

It is important to distinguish poor mental health from true mental illness. The latter is relatively rare and requires specialized treatment while the former is much more common but firmly within our power to address. 

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on July 27, 2022. Photo credit: Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

We must live within our means

Two months ago, the federal government announced an increase to the percentage of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) that employers in Canada will be allowed to hire. Given a ready solution to the labour shortage problem, many businesses breathed a collective sigh of relief.

We can expect that employers in the Bow Valley will be taking advantage of this policy change. But we need to ask ourselves if TFWs are the most appropriate solution to our labour shortage problem and if we truly are ready to receive these workers into our communities. 

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was started in 2005 by the federal government to provide seasonal and temporary workers for certain sectors in the economy. Low wages and poor working conditions in these sectors meant that employers were unable to attract Canadian workers to fill these jobs. 

Instead of increasing pay, or improving working conditions to make jobs more desirable for Canadians, employers lobbied the government for access to foreign workers. And instead of legislating higher minimum wages and enforcing workplace protections, governments granted employers this access. 

In an unspoken collusion, government and employers agreed to grow the economy and corporate profits by exploiting workers from low-income countries. Workers admitted into the country were forced to separate from their families, denied the security of knowing if they could remain in Canada and denied job or employer choice. 

Before the pandemic, the federal government was looking to scrap the TFW program for a number of reasons. Canadian employers were growing reliant on TFWs to fill permanent jobs. There was also serious concern over a lack of basic rights and protections for migrant workers with many reported incidents of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. However, faced with current labour shortages, the federal government has done an about-face on their TFW policy and chosen the easy way out.

“Evidence that we have breached the social boundaries of sustainability in the Bow Valley is equally abundant.”

Even if the federal government is allowing recruitment of more TFWs, we have to ask ourselves if Bow Valley communities are ready to receive them. Do we have the capacity to support the people that we are asking to staff our businesses, service our tourists and ultimately generate our profits?

We know that the levels of tourism in the Bow Valley have already exceeded the boundaries of environmental and social sustainability. For anyone who spends time outdoors in the Bow Valley, the evidence of environmental degradation is plain to see. In popular areas, we see wide braided trails, trampled vegetation and soil erosion. We see litter on the side of our hiking and biking trails and an increase in human-wildlife conflict. 

There are other less visible impacts on our natural environment. Increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change acceleration occur from ever more tourists arriving by air and ground transportation. And increased visitation also leads to adverse effects on air and water quality.

Evidence that we have breached the social boundaries of sustainability in the Bow Valley is equally abundant. We live in communities where housing is too expensive and food security is not guaranteed. The majority of jobs available in the Bow Valley are low-pay, low-skill jobs that do not pay a living wage to employees or allow them to achieve a decent quality of life.

The labour shortage has also resulted in overworked staff who are burnt-out and sustain physical injuries from working long hours in physically-demanding jobs. When workers are injured or simply want a family doctor to help them maintain their health, we are unable to provide them with the health services they need.

However tempting it might be to turn to TFWs as a Band-Aid solution to our labour shortage problems, we know we can do better. Our economic and labour policies cannot be built on a foundation of exploitation. If we are inviting foreign workers into our country to help grow our economy, we need to give them the same rights we enjoy – the right to live in Canada with their family, the security of permanent residency and choice of job and employer.   Governments and employers need to invest in job training, improving working conditions, and strengthening worker protections to benefit Canadian and immigrant workers alike.

We need to recognize, encourage and utilize the assets that immigrants bring to Canada. Many newcomers are leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs with professional training and experience far beyond the requirements of the menial jobs they are hired to do. If we really want to leverage the strengths of immigrants to fortify the Canadian economy, we have to provide pathways for their training and experience to be recognized and offer them employment that matches their competencies.

We also need to make sure that our communities are welcoming and inclusive. At a minimum this means ensuring that basic human needs are adequately met. We need to provide a living wage, offer decent and affordable housing and ensure access to healthy food and quality primary care. 

If we are unable to provide this for all Bow Valley residents, including newcomers, then we need to acknowledge that we have exceeded the limits of our communities to support current levels of tourism and the services they demand. For the sake of our planet and our people, it is time to stop living beyond our means.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on June 17, 2022. Photo credit: Yury Kim on Pexels.com

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Road traffic deaths are preventable

When a pedestrian is killed crossing the highway on the way to “community” housing, it is not an accident. It is death by design – or some would say – a lack of design, and we all have blood on our hands. From the urban planners who designed the housing project in its current location, to the politicians who delayed funding for a safe pedestrian pathway to cross the highway to the citizens who didn’t make enough noise to make sure that human safety was a priority, we all have to take responsibility.

In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that more than 1.2 million people are killed each year from road traffic crashes and an additional 50 million are injured. The world car population, currently estimated at 1 billion vehicles, is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050. With this trend we can expect to see a compounding of health problems related to traffic.

Deaths and serious injuries caused by traffic collisions are the most immediate and obvious negative consequences but there are many other health consequences to road traffic. Air pollution leads to respiratory problems; green house gas emissions leads to global warming; vehicle use contributes to physical inactivity, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer; noise pollution from road traffic can lead to poor sleep and psychological stress; and busy arterial roads can cut through communities reducing opportunities for social interaction.

Towns and cities can become safer, healthier places simply by implementing design changes to their streets and communities. Traditional approaches to road safety, focused on the road user and attempted to create a perfect error-free driver. But we know that human error is inevitable and using a systems approach that recognizes road crashes occur as a result of interactions between road users, vehicle design and road infrastructure is a more comprehensive approach. 

“We have to decide if we are the kind of society that will accept a certain number of deaths to have mobility and economic gain or the kind of society that values every human life and works to ensure that we reduce traffic deaths to zero. “

A safe systems approach recognizes that responsibility for traffic collisions lies with road users, system designers and policymakers. Road users are responsible for following traffic rules and regulations; designers, including road planners and car manufacturers, are responsible for creating safe commuting infrastructure; and policymakers are responsible for showing commitment and leadership in making road safety a priority in their jurisdiction and are responsible for providing funding, legislation and enforcement of road safety measures. 

We have to decide if we are the kind of society that will accept a certain number of deaths to have mobility and economic gain or the kind of society that values every human life and works to ensure that we reduce traffic deaths to zero. If we are the latter, then we are not alone. 

In 1997, the Swedish parliament adopted Vision Zero – the policy that sees the value in every human life and deems any loss of life to traffic incidents unacceptable. The Swedes have managed to reduce their originally low traffic fatality rate of 7 in 100,000 to less than half using this approach, despite a huge increase in vehicle numbers over the same time period. Several cities around the world, including many in Canada, have also adopted this vision. 

A number of evidence-based measures can be used to reduce traffic fatalities. Street design measures can be used to reduce vehicle speeds and chances of collisions. These include the use of roundabouts, speed bumps, islands for pedestrians to take refuge while crossing, and designated pedestrian and bicycle lanes. Other measures such as mandatory seatbelt use, helmets for bicyclists, and checkpoints for testing of blood alcohol levels are also key to reducing traffic fatalities.

Sustainable urban development that creates places that are connected, compact, and coordinated mitigates climate change and improves road safety. Urban sprawl on the other hand leads to more vehicles on the road, and higher rates of traffic fatalities. Developing mixed land uses, smaller blocks and easily accessible space for people such as parks, plazas and other public spaces promotes road safety and increases quality of life for people, while also being gentler on the natural environment. 

Designated bicycling lanes improve opportunities for physical activity and climate-friendly travel and are especially effective when part of a connected network. In Copenhagen, Denmark, bikes outnumber cars by more than a ratio of 5-to-1. A network of cycling paths and innovative bridges make Copenhagen one of the safest places to be a cyclist. Carefully designed roads that slow cars and forgive human error are also key to safety.

We have to realize that towns and cities are there for people, and not for vehicles, and we need to design and build them that way. When we put humans at the heart of designing and planning our urban areas, we create happier and healthier cities. We are less likely to accept traffic fatalities as the cost of doing business. And in doing so, we clearly affirm that every life matters.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on May 20, 2022. Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

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Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic

It has been two years since an invisible but formidable foe shook up our lives. Since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, we have all learned a great many things. We learned to bake bread, sew masks, use videoconferencing not only to get through our workday but also to maintain connection with friends and family.

We hope that we are now at the tail end of this crisis and that we will be able to live with this virus.  But we want to do more than just live with the virus; we want to make sure we thrive into the future. And to do so we need to reflect on the lessons learned from our pandemic experience and act on these learnings to make our society stronger and healthier for all.

At the most basic level, the pandemic has reminded us that simple hygiene practices are crucial to staying healthy. Washing or sanitizing hands frequently and staying home when sick are simple ways to keep oneself and one’s community healthy. We learned this in elementary school but forgot our lessons along the way and it has taken a deadly virus to remind us of the importance of basic hygiene.

Also, essential to keeping a community healthy, are adequately funded and resourced public health systems. Outside of global pandemics, public health systems do not get much public attention and do not make for glamorous funding announcements by politicians in the same way that promising money for ICU beds, operating rooms or new wings to hospitals do. 

“And when our leaders make decisions, they need to bring the public along with consistent and transparent messaging.”

Despite many years of preparation since the SARS pandemic, Canada was woefully unprepared to scale up testing, tracing and isolating to prevent the spread of a virus so similar to its predecessor. Canada needs to invest in a more robust public health system with the workforce, equipment and surge capacity to scale up to meet the demands of the next public health emergency.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also taught us that when faced with a significant threat we need to act fast in the face of uncertainty and before all the information is available. Then, we have to be willing to change strategy as new events develop and more data becomes available.  Everyone from individuals to communities, scientists to business owners, and governments to not-for-profit organizations had to be flexible in their thinking and nimble on their feet when it came making the changes required to deal with the ever-mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus.

And when our leaders make decisions, they need to bring the public along with consistent and transparent messaging. They need to provide reliable and timely information that explains their actions and the reasons for their actions. This applies equally to scientific and medical leaders as well as political leaders. Poor communication can lead to an erosion in public trust and a lack of support for key public health measures and social policies.

To reach communities, especially ones that are disadvantaged or marginalized, health and social service providers need to engage with existing leaders in these communities. Community leaders already have the trust of their people and an understanding of what they need and how best to deliver much needed services. When leadership and assets within communities were supported and leveraged during the pandemic, for example in a number of First Nations communities, the results for improving vaccination rates or reducing case rates were remarkable.

During this pandemic, Canadians also learned the importance of self-reliance. At the beginning of the pandemic when countries were scrambling for masks, ventilators and vaccines, Canada had to get in line behind those with domestic manufacturing. Governments have to reinvest in Canadian production of essential goods and support medical research and vaccine development within our borders.  

One cannot ignore the importance of daily conditions that people live, work and play in on their ability to stay healthy. Housing, income and work conditions are all social determinants of health that had a huge impact on the spread of COVID-19 infection during this pandemic. 

The pandemic exposed deep inequities in our society when it came to access to resources for living. We need to urge our governments to make sure that proper housing, adequate income and safe work conditions are met for all Canadians. We live in a rich nation with sufficient resources for all to live comfortably and safely, now and in the next pandemic.

We also learned that our democracy can be threatened by those within our own borders and that we need to stand up and defend this cornerstone of our society. Our governments need to act swiftly and decisively to disarm any such threat, and as citizens, we must continue to strengthen our political rights and responsibilities through civic engagement and community action.  

Finally, we have to acknowledge that we live in an interconnected world where one country cannot recover in isolation from the pandemic and expect to thrive. Canadians have a responsibility to help low-income countries in their pandemic recovery by improving access to much-needed vaccines, health infrastructure and economic opportunities. After all, we are citizens of a global village.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on March 18, 2022. Photo credit: NEOSiAM 2021 on Pexels.com

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