Opinion: Canada is failing on child and youth mental health

COVID-19 has revealed inequitable access to vital services for vulnerable youth people across the country.

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People say the world is recovering from COVID-19, but the crisis has expanded far beyond the pandemic. Hospitals and emergency rooms across Canada are reporting an unprecedented number of visits and significantly higher wait times, especially for mental health-related concerns. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, during the first year of the pandemic, almost 25 percent of hospitalizations for children and youth were mental health-related.

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Debra Lefebvre, an Ontario Mental Health Registered Nurse, explains that the “uncertainty, unpredictability, and isolation” brought on by the pandemic have escalated children and youth’s mental health to “crisis proportions.” Some examples highlight the negative impact of COVID-19 on child and youth mental health:

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• In 2021, SickKids Hospital observed a 25-per-cent increase in emergency room visits for mental health-related concerns;

• The number of patients with substance-use disorders who visited McMaster Children’s Hospital increased by more than 200 percent;

• The Children’s Hospital for Eastern Ontario (CHEO) saw a similar increase of around 200 per cent for patients with eating disorders;

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• Repeat hospitalizations for mental health-related concerns continually increased over the course of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, many hospitals reduced the number of beds allocated for children to protect adults who were disproportionately affected by the virus. Two-and-a-half years later, this imbalance persists and hospitals do not have the resources to see child and youth patients in a period that is considered safe.

With respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and pneumonia further exacerbating long wait times and worsening patient acuity, mental health services continue to be neglected. Dr. Melanie Bechard, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at CHEO and President of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, has noted that patients visit emergency departments for a variety of concerns. Because no two cases are exactly the same, additional time and attention is needed from health care professionals to provide proper support and treatment to children and youth.

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“The gaps in mental health care are arguably even wider [than for physical health]Bechard pointed out. These gaps stem from inconsistencies in provincial and territorial public health plans for access to mental health professionals (including psychotherapists, social workers, etc.).

In response to the youth mental health crisis in Canada, Children First Canada organized the #codePink campaign in 2021. Code Pink is a term often used in hospitals to announce a pediatric emergency. Many of the top children’s hospitals and advocacy organizations across Canada, including the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, have come together to declare #codePink.

As a result of the #codePink, Young Canadians Roundtable on Health urges first ministers to take action and recommends the following:

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1) Support a collaborative network of community organizations. The Mood Disorders Society of Canada suggests the creation of a country-wide network of community organizations to work together and share knowledge, resources and training. This kind of network provides opportunities to collaborate with other health professionals, improves continuity of care, and allows children and youth to receive support, where and when they need it, and stop the #codePink.

2) Increase funding to remove barriers to mental health services (such as by offering free or virtual services), to proactively support children and youth before they need to access emergency health care services.

3) Make additional investments in comprehensive promotion, prevention, and early interventions specific to children and youth. Increased funding for mental health services is needed, not only to expand those services reduced during the pandemic, but to improve access and services to disadvantaged communities, recognizing cultural differences between groups that impact the effectiveness of care.

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By creating a permanent source of funding for provinces and territories, with a portion dedicated to community services, governments can begin to close the gaps in child and youth mental health services, making it a smart investment and providing relief to families already on tight budgets. “Canadians pay at least $1 billion per year on private psychological services” according to the advocacy campaign Act for Mental Health, but “every dollar spent on mental health returns $4 to $10 to the economy.”

COVID-19 has had many impacts on children and youth and has revealed inequitable access to mental health care across the country. This is further worsened by other illnesses, burnout, loss of health care providers, and the deprioritization of children and youth by politicians and policymakers. This needs to change.

There are eight million children who deserve better access to health care in this country. Every day of a child’s life matters. It is time for Canadian governments to act—before it is too late.

Raissa Amany, Magdalena Rudz, Carly La Berge and Connie Trang are members of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, which works for better health and wellbeing outcomes for young people.

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