We are failing young Canadians on mental health
Canada’s two-tier youth mental health system cannot be allowed to continue.
Partners for Mental Health launched a campaign called Right By You to tackle the most pressing issue facing the mental health system — the unequal access to mental health services, treatment and supports for children and youth in need.
Published on Mon Oct 07 2013
While child and youth mental health has received much well-deserved attention in recent years, Ontario and the rest of Canada continue to struggle with the untenable reality that Canada has a two-tier system of care for children and youth needing mental health services.
There are up to 795,000 children and youth (up to the age of 24) in Ontario who have at least one mental health issue, the most common of which are anxiety disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity, conduct disorder, depression and substance abuse.
While that number may surprise you, what’s more shocking is that only one in four of these children receives the mental health help they need.
The problem is that generally in Canada, government-provided health care only covers the cost of psychological support services provided by psychiatrists, for whom there is typically a one-year waiting period to get an appointment. Some children have waited up to four years for help. During this waiting period, their mental health often deteriorates, in many cases quite dramatically.
However, if a family has the financial means, they can afford to pay for mental health services provided by a psychologist or a social worker in the private sector. Thus, we have a two-tier health system in child and youth mental health.
Not providing mental health services to our children can have devastating results. Suicide is the leading cause of non-accidental death among youth ages 15 to 24, and the leading cause of death in children and adolescents ages 10 to 19 in First Nations populations.
Canada’s youth suicide rate is higher than many other industrialized countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. More disturbing is the fact that one of the most important risk factors for suicide is the presence of an untreated mental disorder. This is the case in 90 per cent of youth suicides.
This situation cannot be allowed to continue. Partners for Mental Health — a national, charitable organization dedicated to transforming the way Canadians think about, act toward and support mental health in Canada — last week launched a campaign calledRight By You to tackle the most pressing issue facing the mental health system — the unequal access to mental health services, treatment and supports for our children and youth in need.
The Right By You campaign will generate greater awareness of the need for better access to youth mental health services, treatment and supports. It calls on federal, provincial and territorial governments to take action to ensure our children have the help they need and deserve, and to end the two-tier mental health system for children and youth in Canada.
Provincial governments must ensure that every child and youth living in Canada has access to mental health services as soon as the need arises, regardless of their family’s ability to pay for those services. In most cases, this can be done for $1,000 per child, which is a small price to pay to ensure our children have the help they need.
Offering universal access to mental health services and supports to young people is not without precedent. Australia is leading the world in ensuring that the basic mental health needs of children are met, and Canada should follow suit.
Beyond the improved health outcomes, economics tells us that this approach makes sense. Mental illnesses and addictions cost Ontario at least $39 billion a year, a figure that does not account for the overwhelming emotional costs to people living with a mental illness and their friends and families.
There is strong evidence that promotion, prevention and early intervention targeted at children and families can produce significant net cost benefits to Canada. For every $1 spent on early intervention and treatment of mental illness in children and youth, an estimated $7 will be saved in future health-care costs.
While the Ontario government has made strides in recent years on addressing this gap in service, including releasing a long-term strategy for mental health and addictions with children and youth as a priority for investment, there is more that must be done.
We can no longer stand by and allow the system to fail our children. They deserve more. It’s time to do right by our young Canadians.
Former senator Michael Kirby is both the Founding Chair of Partners for Mental Health and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. To learn more about the Right by You campaign, go to www.righhtbyyou.ca