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Let's Talk About How Youth Struggle With Mental Illness

While the volume of conversation in Bell Let's Talk is incredible, I do worry we are not paying enough attention to children facing mental health issues.

01/30/2018 08:50 EST | Updated 01/30/2018 16:51 EST

Bell Let's Talk has helped lift a veil on mental health knowledge and done a lot to reduce stigma. As a result, we better understand that mental illness impacts us all. But did you know that 70 per cent of adult mental illnesses begin in childhood? And, by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 50 per cent will have had, or have, a mental illness?

While the volume of conversation in Bell Let's Talk is incredible, I do worry we are not paying enough attention to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities who face mental health issues: children. Indigenous, LGBTQ, low-income and black youth are especially vulnerable.

That's why I am asking you to help children and youth with mental health issues by including them in your conversations this year on Bell Let's Talk Day.

Now more than ever, it's important to remember kids when discussing mental health. Children's mental healthcare is in crisis. Due to chronic underfunding and increased demand as awareness and acceptance of mental illness grows, our communities are facing a shortage of services and long wait times. Some kids in Ontario are waiting 18 months for urgent care. Other parts of the country are facing similar challenges. That's not right.

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As a mom with a daughter who has struggled with mental illness, I know how challenging it can be, not only for the children affected, but for the entire family. It is extremely difficult to know whether professional help is needed, and then when you do reach out for help and it isn't available, the situation can become dire. Thousands of children languish on wait lists; many give up and stop trying to get help, or worse, become suicidal, like my daughter did. It's not just those immediately touched by mental illness.

There is a ripple effect that happens in our communities, schools and in our workplaces. For example, a recent Ipsos Public Affairs survey found that one in four Ontario parents reported having to miss work to care for their child with mental health issues. I missed weeks of work to care for my child. The survey also showed that 46 per cent of all youth in Ontario report having missed school as a result of their anxiety, and one quarter of all kids with mental health issues experience substantially lower achievement at school.

Hospitals are also impacted. Many children and youth are forced in desperation and crisis to seek mental health treatment at hospital emergency rooms. Since 2006-07, there has been a 63 per cent increase in emergency department visits and a 67 per cent increase in hospitalizations for Ontario children and youth with mental health issues. Nationally, the rates echo the sharp increase with a 56 per cent increase in emergency department visits and 47 per cent in hospitalization.

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Elyse Schipper, Executive Director of Parents Lifelines of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa recently presented to a group of Ontario MPPs to explain the crisis and need for further help:

"When we hear about a child in our community who has died by suicide, as service providers we are rocked with grief and frustration. Because we know that this death didn't come out of nowhere – that there were so many opportunities along the way, over years, to intervene for a better outcome. That the parents of this child, like so many who call us, have found only closed doors. Have been sent home from Hospital Emergency with a child deemed not quite high enough risk, to lock up all the knives, the ropes, the pills, and to sleep outside their child's room lest he wake up in the middle of the night and decide he can't take it anymore."

There are solutions. Bell Let's Talk has provided grants totaling more than $100,000 for innovative and cost-effective mental health programs for Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) service providers to deliver suicide prevention first aid training for youth, provide walk-in mental health clinics in rural communities and extend service hours to provide evening support, for example. And, parent groups, CMHO and youth themselves are urging the government of Ontario to invest $120M in additional funds annually to meet the increasing demand and shortage of mental health and addiction services for both children and youth.

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With these additional funds, we can:

  • Ensure that no child or youth waits more than 30 days for mental health and addictions treatment
  • Expand specialized youth mental health and addictions centres to ensure that children and youth get the treatment they need
  • Hire and retain the highest skilled staff caring for our most vulnerable children
  • Develop quality standards to deliver the best mental health and addictions services

This Bell Let's Talk day I hope everyone will raise their voice for children's mental health. For those in Ontario, you can also join me, CMHO, parents and youth in sending Premier Kathleen Wynne a message to let her know that our #kidscantwait. For others across Canada, I also encourage you to reach out to your local politicians to make child and youth mental health a priority.

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