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ST. THOMAS – Fresh off unveiling her party’s platform for Ontario’s June election, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath pitched her plan for universal mental health-care in a campaign-style stop here Tuesday.

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Horwath, with Elgin-Middlesex-London NDP candidate Andy Kroeker, pledged to pump $1.15 billion annually into mental health supports “to fix the system.”

“This is a crisis. (The system) has been broken for a long time and people are suffering,” Horwath said. She said the money would replace funds taken out of the system by the Ford government.

The NDP would create Mental Health Ontario to expand access to counselling and therapy by including six initial treatment sessions through OHIP, rising to 12 sessions for patients who need the extra time. The plan also includes an eight per cent boost in funding for the Canadian Mental Health Association — a $24-million increase — and 30,000 more supportive housing units over 10 years.

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“People in Ontario are not getting access to the mental health services that we need and that people deserve,” Horwath said “That is causing quite a toll on everyday families. Mental health services are as important as other health services.”

More than 28,000 children and youth are currently waiting for mental health treatment, more than double the 12,000 on the waiting list in 2017, she said. Children needing help are waiting up to a 2½ years, while youth are waiting 400 days and adults 500, she added.

Nearly 3,000 people accessed the Elgin-Middlesex CMHA’s Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Centre between June 2020 and June 2021, she said. Half of them were accessing that type of support for the first time.

“That’s pretty serious,” Horwath said.

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One organization trying to cover the shortage in mental health services is The Nameless, a St. Thomas volunteer group that assists those living with complex mental health and addictions but without stable housing.

“We try to help people bridge the gap of wait lists, and see them for what they are, not their crisis in the moment,” said its founder, Leticia Mizon. “Often we are acting as their only supports due to other supports in the city being unable to meet their needs”

Mizon, who also works at a London homeless shelter, said she suffers from “front-line burnout” and finds herself on a waiting list for mental health support.

“I can’t imagine the amount of stress, and anxiety and despair people (without financial means) are experiencing when I myself . . . am still struggling to fund my own wellness,” she said.

Elgin-Middlesex-London has been held provincially by the Progressive Conservatives, but Tory incumbent MPP Jeff Yurek is not seeking a fourth term and has resigned from politics.

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