You are driving past a school play yard and you see thirty kids playing on the school field at recess. According to widely-accepted figures, at least six of those kids you see – all sons, daughters, grandkids, cousins, neighbours, members of our community – will suffer or are suffering from some sort of mental health issue, be it anxiety, trauma, a mood disorder, or an emotional, social and behavioural issue.
Of those six kids, only one will get access to services in a timely fashion. The other five will have to wait, if they get the help they need at all. In the City of Kawartha Lakes that’s 2,770 young people who will experience a mental health issue. Or put another way, that’s over 32 school buses filled to legal capacity of students who will not get the timely help they need. You don’t have to be a child psychologist to know that waiting to fix a problem can be painful, expensive and overwhelming. That’s a sobering concept when thinking about a roof. It’s downright terrifying when thinking about our kids. And you know something else, too…if a government down in the polls makes youth mental health an election issue, then there actually is a crisis in youth mental health in Ontario — and Kawartha Lakes is not immune.
Provincial figures show a dramatic increase in visits to doctors’ offices and emergency departments over the last 10 years. Bruce Scott, who has worked at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kawartha Lakes for 25 years, agrees noting: “My experience has led me to believe that there has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression amongst children and youth we serve at the club. Access to youth mental health services can be difficult with long waiting lists.”
Lynda Nydham is from the Children’s Service Council, a transfer payment agency within Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton that provides intensive service coordination for children and youth with complex special needs. She agrees with Scott: “Within our agency, we have noted an increase in crisis-related referrals over the past few years. We feel that there is a linkage similar to the one identified by children’s mental health agencies, in that long wait lists mean that people aren’t always getting the support they need in a timely manner.”
Rob Hunter, the executive director of CHIMO (the largest provider of youth mental health services in Kawartha Lakes) notes another area of concern – the age of the child or youth presenting with these issues.
“We have seen a reduction in the ages of children and youth presenting for service. We are seeing a large number of clients at a younger age presenting with anxiety that at times includes suicidal ideation.”
The very nature of our ‘City’ poses other challenges for youth mental health. Notes Mr. Scott, given “the large geographic size of our City, transportation can be a challenge to families wanting to access services.”
And let’s face it, we aren’t the richest area of the province. “Poverty is an additional issue,” says Hunter, “limiting mobility to attend services.”
“Workers will visit families in their homes for skills and capacity building but that in turn limits the time available for direct service as they use time to travel.”
The relatively small population of our city also means that we have limited access to medical specialists like psychiatry, psychologists and pediatricians. In 2014, Ontario’s per capita spending on healthcare (per person) was $1,361 compared to $16.45 on mental health. All the local agencies contacted by The Advocate confirm Nydam’s assessment that our local system is “maxed out,” noting that more resources are needed to “expand treatment services and case management, decrease waitlists, and retain quality staff.”
Given that research shows improving a child’s mental health from moderate to high can save $140,000 in health care costs per child, increasing resources in this area not only meets an urgent need, it may actually save us health care expenses in the future.
So the bad news is that our system is drastically underfunded. Our local agencies have to deliver services in a large geographic area with no public transportation outside of Lindsay, and poverty further strains available resources. The good news is that our local agencies are doing some amazing programming with the resources they have and perhaps just as importantly innovating to meet the local challenges. Both school boards (TLDSB and PVNCCDSB) devote significant resources to improving the overall well-being of their students through systemic programs that are based on the idea that a healthy student will perform better.
Perhaps just as importantly, the agencies are concentrating on co-operation as a way of improving youth mental health. The public school board for example has signed over 50 different memoranda of understanding with outside groups and agencies in the field of youth mental health. The recent transfer of some youth mental health programs from Ross Memorial Hospital to Chimo (which is located in the same building as Kawartha Lakes Boys and Girls Club) creates a local ‘hub’ for youth mental health. Service providers meet regularly to better integrate programs and serve the community.
“At the centre of our discussions is the principle of a “no wrong door” model of service, where children, youth and families can get the help they need regardless of what door they knock on,” explains Nydam.
The goal of all this work is that no kid falls through the cracks. In a complicated, underfunded system with many moving parts, involving several agencies that are all reliant on provincial funding, that is no easy task. And just as certain is that that are few goals so crucial.
First in a series of articles on Youth Mental Health in the City of Kawartha Lakes.