Kids’ Mental Health Services No Place for a Patchwork Quilt

We would not tolerate that many kids being deprived of any other essential health service, but we do just that when it comes to mental health care. Opinion
Hamilton Spectator, April 23, 2019

For every 100 Ontario kids who need support and treatment for mental health issues, 67 aren’t receiving them. Imagine that. It is estimated that about a million children in the province battle mental health problems. So two thirds of them about 667,000 aren’t getting help.

What would happen if that same abysmal statistic applied to kids fighting childhood cancers? Or muscular degenerative diseases? Or visual impairment?

Mental health disorders are nothing more or less than that. Same as diabetes. Same as any other illness.

We would not tolerate that many kids being deprived of any other essential health service, but we do just that when it comes to mental health care. That suggests that while societal views on mental health have come a long way, we still have a very long way to go.

No one oversees children’s mental health in Ontario warn McMaster University researchers

The information, damning and baffling, comes from the 2014 Ontario Child Health Study (OCHS) published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry earlier this month.

It gets worse. The same research tells us that no one in Ontario is ultimately responsible for children’s mental health care. To quote from the journal: ‘In essence, the 2014 OCHS provides a 30-year report card on children’s mental health, suggesting that for far too long, Canadians have tolerated an inadequate patchwork of services which the public may be unaware of until children develop problems and families try to get help.’

The research spotlighted by the respected medical journal was carried out by the Offord Centre for Child Studies, which is affiliated with McMaster University and McMaster Children’s Hospital. It studied 10,802 Ontario youth aged four to 17. Eight papers were generated, which required an entire issue of the journal dedicated to the research. How important is this exhaustive work? Consider this from the report:

“Mental disorders typically start in childhood and cause substantial individual and collective burdens across the lifespan. These disorders are also now the leading cause of childhood disability worldwide. Exacerbating the burdens, high childhood disorder prevalence has been coupled with low children’s mental health service reach. Service shortfalls have persisted despite growing research evidence on effective interventions and despite widespread recognition that timely access to adequate health, social, and educational services is a fundamental right for all children.”

What do decision-makers need to do now that we have this authoritative data? Again, from the report: Ensure coherent policy leadership, make and sustain comprehensive children’s mental health plans, ensure the use of effective interventions, reach all children with mental disorders using innovative service approaches and ensure adequate and dedicated children’s mental health budgets.

It’s a tall order, but it starts from one place: ditch the patchwork quilt approach and adopt a more unified, holistic strategy. A diverse array of service-providers need to be heard and incorporated. But it all starts with everyone pulling in the same direction, with everyone being aware of what other stakeholders are doing.

It’s an ambitious approach, requiring a high degree of collaboration. But it’s hard to imagine a more worthy cause and more deserving population.

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