04/09/2013 07:21 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. mental health system failing teens, watchdog says

British Columbia's mental health system is failing vulnerable teens and the government needs to fix it, says B.C.'s children's watchdog.

In a scathing new report, the province's Representative for Children and Youth says 16 to 19-year-olds suffering from mental health issues aren't consistently getting the help they desperately need.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond surveyed hundreds of families in her review and collected information on the experiences of 89 families who tried to use the system.

In many cases, youth who were receiving mental health care were shunted off to shelters, emergency rooms or even jail.

"A young person described it as falling off a cliff. All of a sudden you're 16 and there's no treatment bed, there's no support [because] you're an adult," she said.

Instead, families are faced with a fragmented and under-resourced system that can be confusing and traumatic, Turpel-Lafond said.

Her report on youth mental health in the province found serious shortcomings and poor communication in a mental health system she described as a patchwork of services that was inconsistent from region to region.

The report says promises from a 2003 report to improve the mental health system for children have gone unfulfilled.

She wants to see the creation of a Minister of State for Youth Mental Health, responsible for building a three-year plan to create coherent mental health programs for teens.

Health Minister Margaret McDiarmid says such a plan will have to be discussed after the election, but she agrees that health care for mental illness needs to be seamless.

"There's a particularly vulnerable population that have two transitions: an age transition and a between ministries transition that we are not managing well enough today and we need to address that," McDiarmid said.

In the meantime she says 2,000 GPs in B.C. have received extra training to deal with mental health in their practices.