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'Dark Hole' Of Mental Illness Is Too Real For Kids Without Access To Help

Children and youth with mental health disorders are increasingly seeking treatment in hospitals because they cannot access treatment in their communities.

12/04/2017 15:40 EST | Updated 12/04/2017 15:42 EST

Assia Messaoudi was 12 when she started feeling sad and avoiding school. After weeks of missed school, her mom took her to their family doctor. Assia was placed on a wait list for mental health services. For two years Assia waited, slipping into what she called "a dark hole." Finally, after a suicide attempt, she received treatment. That was 10 years ago. One would think with all of the medical advances and destigmatizing of mental illness that getting the right kind of treatment where and when you need it would be easier. Today, there are even more children like Assia still waiting.

The Canadian Institute of Health Information recently released data showing that children and youth with mental health disorders are increasingly seeking treatment in hospitals because they cannot access treatment in their communities. Emergency department visits for children and youth with mental health disorders and addictions has risen by 63 per cent and hospitalizations by 67 per cent in Ontario — rates are higher than the national average.

Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO), the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, parent groups and youth have sounded the alarm about the crisis in accessing child and youth mental health care and its impact on education, in emergency rooms, at home and the impact of never-ending wait times. There have also been countless reports released by provincially appointed mental health advisory councils, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO), the auditor general of Ontario, to name a few, which all call for investment in mental health prevention and early intervention community-based services, especially among youth.

The impact of anxiety and mental health issues on Ontario families goes beyond health outcomes.

CMHO is sounding the alarm again to the government of Ontario. New research from Ipsos Public Affairs shows things aren't getting better. The survey of Ontarians, parents and youth shows there is a significant number of parents in Ontario seeking mental health services for their children than previously thought (36 per cent vs. 20 per cent) and of those who do, four in 10 didn't get the help they needed or are still waiting. It also showed that 62 per cent of youth are concerned about their levels of anxiety and half of parents report having ever had concerns about their child's level of anxiety. Four in 10 youth have sought mental health services, and nearly half of them were not able to get the help they needed.

The impact of anxiety and mental health issues on Ontario families goes beyond health outcomes. For the first time, research shows that one in four Ontario parents missed work to care for their child due to issues related to anxiety. One third of parents have had a child miss school (33 per cent) due to anxiety. Nearly half of youth (46 per cent) report missing school. More research is needed, but the potential loss of income of Ontario parents missing work is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and school avoidance by children and youth has a lasting effect on the kids missing school as well as on the economy.

Kids and parents deserve better. And there are solutions. CMHO has provided the Ontario government with a plan to meet the increased demand and wait times that they are experiencing. There are almost 100 accredited and publicly funded community mental health centres providing specialized child and youth mental health care to children, youth and families, including those with the most serious mental illness.

Sami Sert via Getty Images

These community mental health centres provide targeted prevention, early intervention, short- and long-term counselling and therapy, as well as intensive services for children and youth with complex mental health issues. But there is a funding shortfall to these centres. They have not had an increase in annual funding to meet increasing demand in more than a decade, which contributes to long wait times and services not being available to meet the type of treatment required for some children and youth.

Accredited child and youth mental health centres need immediate investments to significantly shorten wait times for services, build capacity to meet growing demand for services, recruit and retain qualified staff and clinical experts, and introduce quality improvement initiatives. Further investments are also needed in mental health services across the continuum including at schools and hospitals to help ensure that clients have timely access to these vital interventions and treatments. This will result in a significant reduction in emergency and hospital admissions, timely access to treatment and improved service quality. Most importantly, this will improve outcomes for children and youth and will save lives.

Kim Moran is a mental health advocate, CEO of Children's Mental Health Ontario and parent of a child who has struggled with mental health issues.

Supported by: Sam Hammond, President, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

Anthony Dale, President and CEO, Ontario Hospital Association

Michele Sparling, Chair, Board of Directors, Parents for Children's Mental Health

Mary Ballantyne, CEO, The Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact your local crisis centre. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit suicideprevention.ca to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you're worried about.
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