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A teen girl sits on a swing in this March 24, 2023, file photo.Erin Hooley/The Associated Press

About 1.6 million children and teens in Canada are dealing with a mental-health disorder, with tens of thousands waiting months or even years for adequate treatment, according to a new report.

Black, Indigenous, other racialized people and individuals questioning their gender and sexual identities are disproportionately affected by mental-health challenges and typically face more barriers accessing treatment, says the new report, published Thursday by Children’s Healthcare Canada and the Conference Board of Canada.

“We’re certainly seeing a growing number of children and youth that are suffering,” said Emily Gruenwoldt, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare Canada.

According to the report, these trends have worsened in the past 20 years, with the number of young people reporting good mental health experiencing a sharp decline, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.

The findings echo what many youth mental-health professionals have been saying about the rising prevalence of disorders among young people and the need to do more to help.

Two studies published in September by clinician-researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children found that the number of children and teens who sought emergency care and needed hospital admission because of self-harm and suicidal ideation rose substantially during the pandemic.

The majority of mental-health challenges people experience start to emerge before they are adults, which is one of the reasons it is so critical to address the growing youth mental-health crisis.

While it’s difficult to determine exactly how many young people are waiting for treatment for a mental-health disorder, the report references evidence from Ontario, which shows that in 2020, nearly 30,000 young people were waiting. On average, those patients waited 67 days for counselling and therapy and 92 days for intensive treatment. But there were cases where waiting times for intensive treatment stretched to 2.5 years, which the report describes as “essentially irrelevant” in the context of a crisis.

And that’s only taking into account children who are able to access waiting lists. Many of those living in rural, remote and northern communities have no access to programs or treatments for mental-health disorders.

Experts say part of the problem is that pediatric health services have been historically underfunded. But mental-health treatment and resources are also fragmented and can be difficult to navigate. Canada, like other countries, is facing a shortage of health professionals across many sectors, including primary care, which can make it difficult for children and youth to access the system.

The report found the costs of treating anxiety and depression, two of the most commonly diagnosed mental-health disorders, as well as the investment required from the education and justice systems, among others, is $4-billion a year.

“There are very real financial costs to the system itself, but also to families,” Ms. Gruenwoldt said.

But if governments and health institutions rallied to improve the timely delivery of treatment and support for young people struggling with anxiety and depression, the overall cost of those disorders would drop to $1.5-billion.

The report makes several recommendations to address the situation, including the creation of and investment in a national child-health strategy, with mental health as a key area of focus. Other recommendations include investments in mental-health professionals who specialize in children and youth and the creation of a national-data strategy for child and youth mental health to track accountability and other measures.

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