10/16/2015 12:03 EDT | Updated 10/16/2016 05:12 EDT

Youth Mental Health Is an Election Issue That Affects Us All

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Backlight of a teenager depressed sitting inside a dirty tunnel

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Jennifer watched as her 11-year-old son's symptoms grew worse by the day. Jacob wouldn't leave the house. Then, he spat constantly to purge the poisons he feared were contaminating his body. He ultimately stopped eating. In November, 2013 Jacob had a total breakdown at school, falling into a catatonic seizure.

It would take almost a year for the family to get him treatment in their Ontario community. When they finally evaluated Jacob, psychiatrists said his was the worst case of obsessive-compulsive disorder they had seen in a child that age.

Approximately 1.2 million young Canadians -- one out of every five youth -- suffers from a mental illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). And while we've seen major progress in raising awareness and reducing stigma around mental health, access to psychiatric treatment for desperate young Canadians like Jacob has lagged far behind.

In this election we are raising issues that matter to young Canadians. Mental health is a big one.

"In 1975, about one in four kids who needed mental care actually received it. Forty years later it's not much better," says Dr. Stan Kutcher, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

In May, a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that the number of youth treated by hospital emergency rooms for mental health issues rose by 46 per cent between 2006 and 2014. Youth and their parents turn to ERs because, when they're in crisis, they can't get immediate access to mental health services anywhere else.

Jennifer told us her "incredibly intelligent" and curious son has an encyclopedic knowledge on topics from World War II history to hockey stats. But since kindergarten, he has grappled with attention deficit issues. In Grade 4, darker symptoms emerged. Jacob became paranoid of being touched by anyone, worried it would contaminate him and change who he was.

After Jacob's breakdown two years ago, doctors said he needed a full psychiatric evaluation and treatment. There was a one-year waiting list -- the norm across Canada according to Partners for Mental Health, a non-profit dedicated to improving mental health awareness and access.

"I went ballistic!" says Jennifer. "If you have a child with a physical ailment you get treatment immediately, if your child is mentally ill it's not taken seriously."

The most critical problem is under-funding, say experts we spoke to. A report by Alberta's Institute of Health Economics states that just seven cents of every dollar spent on health care in Canada goes to mental health. That's despite the fact mental disorders account for 40 per cent of all illnesses Canadians face according to Dr. Kutcher.

Canadian governments must dramatically increase funding, investing in accessible community-based mental health care. Dr. Kutcher suggests creating mental health clinics in schools where youth can quickly access care when they are in need.

Dr. Kutcher says with investments and initiatives like that, Canada could become a global leader in youth mental health. "No other country has done well on this issue," he adds.

According to the MHCC, if Canada could reduce the annual rate of mental illnesses by 10 per cent, through prevention and early diagnosis and treatment, it would save our health care system four billion dollars a year.

After months of fighting with hospitals, Jennifer finally got Jacob a psychiatric assessment. He was admitted to an out-patient treatment program in August, 2014.

Jennifer estimates they spent at least $25,000 on private psychological assessments and driving all over Ontario in search of a psychiatric program that would help Jacob. Now 13, he still hasn't returned to school, but with ongoing care his parents say he has turned from the brink.

Young people like Jacob have the potential to contribute so much to our society. To allow such minds to be destroyed because we won't spend the money to care for them in a timely manner -- that is a waste and injustice beyond comprehension.

*The last names of Jennifer and her son were withheld by the authours to protect his identity.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.


Help your child suffering from mental health problems