Opinion

NIAGARA VOICES: Today’s youth: A fragile future

 Lindsay Bell, special to Postmedia News

(Dean Tweed/MontrealGazette file illustration)

(Dean Tweed/MontrealGazette file illustration)

It’s difficult to recall how hard it is to be a kid. We see their problems through adult eyes and compare their issues to adult issues, wishing our troubles were as ‘easy’ as theirs.

Today’s playgrounds are no longer adorned with monkey bars and swing sets. Rather, today’s youth are frantically trying to keep pace with the latest Snapchats, trendiest tweets and worrying about their Facebook likes; that’s today’s playground news.

Trying to stay on top of social media, school work, extracurriculars and building friendships can be overwhelming and hard to adjust to. On the best of days that’s a lot to manage. Tack on puberty and can anyone feel ‘normal’ during those times?

So yes, it’s a big deal when a friend doesn’t ‘like’ your post because now the whole world can see it. These challenges, among the others that come with growing up, can generate very raw emotions for kids. We forget that resiliency and coping skills are learned, not something we’re born with. How can we expect them to manage those feelings when we as adults struggle at times to feel OK as we juggle work, family and social responsibilities?

Statistically speaking, one in five children and youth in Ontario will experience a mental illness and sadly five out of six will not get the treatment they need (Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 2017). Waiting lists for care can average 1.5 years, which means more families are funnelled to emergency rooms for treatment.

Surpassed only by injuries, mental illness is the second highest hospital expenditure among youth, with hospitals experiencing a 56 per cent increase in visits pertaining to mental health (Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2016). Currently the leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 24 is suicide, making Canada’s youth suicide rate the third highest amid developed nations. The reasons for suicide are complex; missed treatment opportunity is one piece of a larger labyrinth at root.

The problem is our health-care system is overwhelmed and under-resourced, both for child and adult mental health services. Campaigns such as the Canadian Mental Health Association’s annual Mental Health week (May 1-7) and others (e.g. Bell Let’s Talk Day) encourage Canadians to “Get Loud” and help break the silence and stigma, while raising alarm to our governments about the desperate need for improved mental health funding (CMHA, 2017). I question whether our government is listening as it troubles me to know a past experience of mine still happens to families today.

Before my present career, I was exploring social work and worked for a period of time at different group homes. On two different shifts a teenage girl tried to kill herself. Her last attempt involved a swing set and me standing beneath her, bear hugging her legs while holding her up to prevent her from dangling, all while my co-worker called 911. She was admitted to the hospital then released after 72 hours with no aftercare support services provided and advised to follow up with her family physician. How ridiculous! She didn’t have a family doctor and was in a group home because she didn’t have a supportive family network. How could she be sent away with nothing? Fortunately, with time I know her outcome was positive, but to hear that parents today are waiting for 1.5 years for treatment isn’t acceptable.

April 24 marked a brighter day for St. Catharines area residents, with the opening of Pathstone Mental Health’s new and expanded facility on Fourth Avenue — Branscombe Mental Health Centre. This non-profit charitable organization treated more than 4,800 young people in 2016 and expects to help more in 2017. They, like other local mental health services across Niagara, have no shortage of clients, and do what they can to stretch their underfunded budgets so families can access timely treatment options, but they can’t do it alone.

Advocating for better mental health services is a social responsibility we all bear. We need to write our elected officials and take to social media to speak up for those who can’t. Parents, teachers, relatives all have a role to play. We need to check in and often. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of illness — it could be the echoing voice of fear and stigma your loved one is trapped behind. Our youth are the future; what message are we sending them if when they reach out for help we turn them away and tell them to come back in a year?

To “Get Loud” about child, youth and adult mental health services please consider the accompanying resources.

— Lindsay Bell is an innovative workplace wellness specialist and human resources professional passionate about creating healthy and engaged workplaces. She can be contacted at innovativehealthstrategies@gmail.com.

Get Loud

Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 2017: http://cmho.org/education-resources/facts-figures

Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2016: www.cihi.ca/en/child-and-youth-mental-health-in-canada-infographic

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 2017 – Get Loud campaign: www.cmha.ca

Pathstone Mental Health, 2017: www.pathstonementalhealth.ca/news/mental-health-treatment-getting-big-boost