Missing: a child and youth mental health strategy at provincial and national levels

Posted on in Health Debates

HillTimes.com – Opinion – Canada currently spends too little on mental health compared to other developed countries. The Mental Health Commission of Canada recommends that nine percent of health budgets should go to improving mental health services.

Mental illness is the most common illness experienced by children and teens in Canada. Each one of us knows a child or a teen who is struggling with either depression, anxiety, an addiction, or a behavioural disorder like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Mental illness not only causes high levels of distress in children, but can also significantly interfere in their lives.

What is not well-known is that these illnesses are not inevitable. Mental illnesses can often be prevented from developing or from becoming more severe and difficult to treat.

A report we released this month from the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy found that 14 per cent of all children and teens in Manitoba were diagnosed by a doctor with at least one mental disorder during the four-year study period. These are diagnosed cases, so if we included all children who experience a mental disorder, the percentage would be higher.

Other provinces report similar findings. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario found in study concluded in 2013 that 34 per cent of high school students had a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress, and 12 per cent seriously thought about suicide in the past year. A recent report prepared for the British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development, found that 12.6 percent of 4—17-year old children were experiencing a clinically significant mental disorder at any given time.

What struck us, in completing the Manitoba report, is that mental illness touches children from all corners of the province and across all socioeconomic levels. We found however, that some children are at greater risk.

Children who live in families with many parenting challenges like poverty, being a teen mom, or being involved with child welfare services have a greater risk of developing mental illness. Our results also suggest that children from rural areas may not have adequate access to mental health services, meaning they have limited chances for early treatment.

When we looked at Manitoba’s suicide records over a four-year period, we found that 74 out of 100,000 teens died by suicide. It is important to keep in mind that these tragic deaths are only a fraction of those with mental illness. For every teen suicide, there are another 200 or more teens who are struggling with depression, ADHD, addictions, or schizophrenia.

Suicide most often occurs when mental illness—and the conditions that place children and teens at risk for mental illness—are not addressed. It is crucial to instil hope in our young people and to build awareness of the many solutions to their problems.

So how can we better support children with mental illness? How do we create hope and better life-long health and success for this future generation?

It is essential to develop and invest in a comprehensive child and youth mental health strategy at provincial and national levels. What is required are strategies to both promote positive mental health and to provide supports and services early in the illness. Home visiting programs in early childhood, for example, have been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and use of substances in children.

Children require a warm nurturing environment. High levels of stress negatively impact the mental health of children. Prevention programs include positive parenting, home visiting, anti-bullying initiatives, and mental health promotion approaches in schools —all strategies aimed at preventing mental illness from developing in the first place.

Increasing resources for mental health promotion in children will pay off big in reducing mental illness burden in adulthood, given that more than half of mental disorders have their roots in childhood.

Our study found that children with mental illnesses are more likely to have lower grades in school and are less likely to graduate from high school. They are also more likely to be accused of a crime or to be victimized.

Increasing mental health knowledge and skills of people working with children across sectors like education, social services and justice would mitigate the untoward effects of mental illness.

Canada currently spends too little on mental health compared to other developed countries. The Mental Health Commission of Canada recommends that nine percent of health budgets should go to improving mental health services.

Investments in mental health and wellness will go a long way to creating hope and a brighter future for children and teens.

Mariette J. Chartier, RN, PhD, is a research scientist at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba. Dr. Chartier has published in the area of population health, mental health and prevention, and early intervention programs for children and their parents.
Marni Brownell, PhD, is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. She is also a senior research scientist with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, and a research scientist with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba.

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This entry was posted on Friday, January 6th, 2017 at 10:59 am and is filed under Health Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Missing: a child and youth mental health strategy at provincial and national levels”

  1. Kevin says:

    Dear Editor,

    It is unfortunate that a child and youth mental health strategy is missing both at national and provincial levels. I wanted to thank you for writing about this issue, as I believe urgent action is required to address it. Previously, I was unaware of success obtained with home visiting programs in early childhood. It made me think about strategies that could be implemented at youth level, specifically during high school. The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS), a representative survey sample of students in grades 7-12 in publicly funded schools in Ontario, revealed some areas for improvement in its 2015 report. Students not only reported an increase in moderate to serious psychological distress (10%), but serious psychological distress as well. Crucially, over one-quarter (28.4%) of students report that, in the past year, they wanted to talk to someone about a mental health problem, but did not know where to turn. Students in grade 10 to 12 are most likely to report an unmet need for mental health support. Given that approximately 70 percent of mental health challenges first arise in childhood or youth, it would seem beneficial to increase supports at the secondary school level. As you stated, mental illness is not inevitable, and it is about time we introduced preventative measures.

    As a Social Work student who completed my third year practicum at a youth support centre, I have witnessed the need for improved child and youth mental health services. I think having programs accessible to this population is critical for our future success as a nation. Perhaps mental health workers could be more readily available to high school students, to ease concerns about accessibility and stigma. Whether this would be a full time position or organized to have workers rotating between schools is another question to debate. All I know is that something must be done soon.


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