The mental-health crisis gripping Vancouver isn’t just a story about adults not getting necessary treatment, but youth too. And in the past decade few inroads have been made in helping a growing wave of young people get access to the mental-health services they require.
That is the assessment of Dr. Steven Mathias, a prominent Vancouver-based psychiatrist who works with young people in need of psychological care.
“We feel we’re in a terrible situation where youth are predominantly using emergency rooms for their point of contact for mental-health issues,” Dr. Mathias, co-founder of the Inner City Youth Mental Health team at St. Paul’s Hospital, said in an interview.
“This is a chronic issue. Only one in four kids between the ages of 12 and 24 are getting the mental health attention they need. And the numbers around that are grim.”
The mortality rate for people under the age of 24 is 60 per 100,000. For those with mental health problems that figure jumps to 1,800 per 100,000 – 30 times higher. Meantime, the number of young people showing up at St. Paul’s emergency with mental health issues has climbed 50 per cent in the last two years.
Last week, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced a task force to deal with what he described as a mental-health epidemic. He says more than 300 of the estimated 2,000 people living in the city with severe mental illnesses, many homeless, require some form of institutionalization. The number of violent crimes involving these individuals is skyrocketing.
The mayor has sent a letter to Premier Christy Clark requesting dramatic increases in services, including a 300-bed facility to house those most in need of help.
Somewhat overlooked are an estimated 200 or so young people in Vancouver living in precarious circumstances while dealing with mental-health concerns. And they are just a fraction of the total number of young people around B.C. struggling with some form of mental illness. In 2012, the province provided mental-health services to about 20,000 children – almost double the number from 2003.
Last April, the province’s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, released a report that shone an unflattering light on the system that is supposed to be helping these kids. Entitled Still Waiting: First-hand Experiences with Youth Mental Health Services in B.C., the document didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.
In it, Ms. Turpel-Lafond painted a picture of a patchwork, underfunded program in systemic disarray that is leaving thousands of young people to fend for themselves when it comes to grappling with mental-health problems.
Parents complain of having their children put on year-long waiting lists to see a mental-health professional. Those who show up at hospitals with a mental-health emergency are often treated shabbily. The report documented cases of kids being mistakenly transferred to maternity wards, homeless shelters and, in many cases, psychiatric units for adults.
Services available in one region of the province are different, and often inferior, to services available in another. For most of the province, there is a shortage of intensive, community-based intermediate treatment and support.
After the age of 19, the Representative noted, youths transition out of services available to young people into the great unknown. Often their files are discontinued or even lost. For them, there is nowhere left to turn.
In the spring, Ms. Turpel-Lafond called for the formation of a new ministry of state for youth mental illness. So far, the government has not moved on the idea. It believes it is doing a good job serving young people in B.C. with a mental-health issues. The facts would seem to indicate otherwise.
All the Representative can do is sound the alarm. It’s the government that has to make this a priority.
What we know unequivocally is that left untreated, mental-health problems involving young persons can morph into much more serious issues in adulthood. As a consequence, they lose any chance of a quality life and end up on the streets or in jail, at a far greater cost to society.
Vancouver’s mental health quandary is the product of many things. But one factor is adults not getting the help they needed when they were young and their problems were more treatable.