Latimer: Youth mental health services – who should be responsible?

One of the most challenging and frustrating parts of raising a child with a mental health issue is simply navigating available resources.

Raising kids can be challenging. Even in the best circumstances, with healthy kids, a great support network and high functioning parents, there are times when it can be very difficult.

When children are facing mental health challenges, the difficulties often expand exponentially. One of the most challenging and frustrating parts of raising a child with a mental health issue is simply navigating the available care, services and resources intended to help.

First, parents need timely and appropriate education about mental health symptoms and appropriate interventions. Next they need to know how and where to access these supports and how to incorporate them into their life for the sake of their child. Unfortunately, BC does not have an excellent track record in this area.

Less than a third of BC’s children and youth with mental illness find the help they need. This is unacceptable. Can you imagine if the statistic were the same for children experiencing diabetes or cancer?

Part of the problem is the way our mental health services are split for our young citizens. Currently, responsibility for youth mental health services is split between the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Health. Whether a child is seen first in a hospital or community setting is how the split in responsibility is determined – but there are serious problems in its execution.

Carol-Ann Saari of the BC Psychiatric Association wrote an excellent editorial last month in the Vancouver Sun in which she explained the flaws with our current system. Briefly, having the responsibility for care split between two ministries means resources and staff are not coordinated.

When dealing with separate ministries, there are different sets of priorities and separate personnel and locations. Communication between the two is often fragmented and sometimes conflicting. What results is families who have to work a lot harder to get care. Meeting different doctors and counselors, travelling to different buildings, telling and re-telling about symptoms and events, and keeping track of directions and advice. When in a crisis, this is not just frustrating, but can be debilitating.

Not only that, but when a child turns 19 they are suddenly an adult and no longer under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development – which means figuring things out again.

Recently, the BC Psychiatric Association joined a call from the Select Standing Committee on Child and Youth Mental Health to improve care by returning responsibility for youth mental health services to the Ministry of Health.

We need to offer a well-coordinated continuum of care for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens that can support them through all stages of life. We need to remove barriers so that every child with mental health challenges is able to get appropriate intervention when it is needed. Not only is this the right thing to do simply because it is the best way to care for people, but it will also prove to make sense financially as well.

Most mental illness starts in childhood and adolescence. Children left untreated grow up to be adults with chronic mental and physical illness, more problems with addiction, less success in jobs and relationships, more poverty and more likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system. Many of these adult problems could be greatly reduced with appropriate care early in life.

Investing in youth is an investment in the future of our province and society in general. I applaud the call for action in this area and hope we can all be advocates for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.


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