Matthew Leaton’s nine-month wait for treatment for his depression and anxiety was a demoralizing time for the 18-year-old Bramptonian, whose suicidal thoughts landed him in the emergency room about 15 times in less than two years.
Leaton’s struggle to get professional help illustrates the barriers young people with serious mental health issues face in their attempts to get treatment.
In a first-ever report card on wait times in the province’s child and youth mental health system, to be released Wednesday, Children’s Mental Health Ontario found than 6,000 young people in the province require more serious treatment than a few counseling sessions. As of January, the projected wait time for such care was a year or more.
“If the rate of referrals continues and Ontario continues to ignore the needs of children and families suffering from mental health issues, we will be in a crisis situation,” said Kim Moran, CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario.
Leaton told the Toronto Star his symptoms worsened as he waited to be seen by a counsellor.
“I started to feel like I’m not important; I don’t matter. I felt like people don’t care. It was just frustrating because it’s like, ‘Why is it so difficult for me when I’m actually reaching out for help, to get the help I need?’”
Though he’s now seeing a counsellor and doing “better,” Leaton still has days where he becomes suicidal if nobody’s around, said his mother, Nancy. Today, Matthew calls a counsellor to discuss his feelings. While he was waiting for treatment, Nancy would instead bring her son to the emergency room for help.
“When you end up in hospital you wait seven, eight hours, and then he’s calm and they say, ‘Oh well you’re fine, you can go home.’ And you’re thinking: Really? Now what do I do?
“In some cases, we went two or three days in a row. He’s obviously not fine if he keeps having these (suicidal thoughts.)”
Families with a young person in crisis defer to the emergency room when there are no other treatment options, said Dr. Joanna Henderson, a clinician scientist and director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“Families don’t know what to do. If your youth is highly distressed, they’re hurting themselves, they’re saying they want to die, you bring them to the emergency room even though the emergency room may not be adequately equipped.”
Henderson, who had no involvement with the report card, said some emergency rooms will give families a referral or set up an appointment for them to see a social worker at a later date, but for the most part young people are sent home with their parents, who are instructed to keep the child safe.
“When families go to the (emergency room) and they’re sent home with instructions like, ‘Well, you need to go home, lock away everything your child could use to harm themselves, including strangulation hazards, knives, sharp objects, medication,’ that’s OK, but that’s not what families are looking for when they seek help.”
Such early experiences with the system can be traumatizing for young people, said Henderson. If they think the system is incapable of helping them, they may forgo it altogether, which can become a more difficult and costly issue later in life, she said.
With 70 per cent of mental health issues emerging during adolescence, it is especially important to make more resources available to young people and to focus on early intervention and treatment, the CMHO report said.
It called out a lack of province-wide data, which makes it tough to measure outcomes, and called for better coordination within the sector, such as the need for primary care, hospitals, child and youth mental health centres and schools to all work together.
Moran credits the provincial government with making structural changes to the current system through its Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, but said the impact of those changes won’t be felt for another three to five years.
The report recommends the government invest $30 million into the system immediately to bring down wait times, as well as create a provincial body tasked with clarifying roles and responsibilities across sectors and improving coordination and consistency.
Moran estimates the additional funding would bring wait times down to four months, a more manageable timeframe for children and their families dealing with severe mental issues, she said.
“Those are the kids that are waiting right now, and that’s where there’s a gap that the government needs to fill.”