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While 61 per cent of Canadian children and youth were able to access at least one early intervention in mental health care when they went looking for it, more than half said finding it wasn’t easy, a new national survey suggests.

When they tried to get help, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, they reported several barriers, such as long waits and a lack of services available when and where they needed them. Almost nine out of 10 said they felt overwhelmed, and didn’t know how to keep looking.

Despite public-awareness campaigns to reduce the stigma around mental illness, about half reported worrying about what others thought of them. Almost 60 per cent said that when they asked for help, they were either misunderstood or dismissed.

In the survey of 2,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 24, conducted between last April and June, one-third of respondents said they rarely or never found getting help easy. The most common services young patients received were counselling, school-based care and crisis support.

Early interventions for youth are especially important since they can prevent mild problems from becoming more severe disorders, and improve outcomes into adulthood. The data identify a second worrisome category of youth: the 40 per cent in the survey group who felt they needed help but didn’t access services at all.

A shortage of youth specialists in mental health care means that “the warnings signs are not understood,” said Sheryl Boswell, the executive director of the advocacy group Youth Mental Health Canada in Hamilton. Cases that need care may be dismissed as a teenage phases, she said, or attributed to family conflict. “The wait and see approach isn’t serving anybody – it is unfair to families, and it is not cost effective for the system.”

The study comes as the country’s health care system is wrestling with critical staff shortages, crowded pediatric emergency departments and longer waiting times – all while mental heath needs rise among Canadians, young and old.

The percentage of people of all ages who visited emergency for mental health and substance-use issues more than four times a year remained stable, at 10 per cent in 2021-2022, compared with the previous year. The number of Canadians who were admitted to hospital for substance-use issues rose significantly, and those admitted for mental health and addiction issues at least three times in one year also increased.

Tatum Wilson, the chief executive officer of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, also pointed out that even before the pandemic, 28,000 children and youth were on waiting lists for care in the province, some stretching nine months and in the worse cases, more than two years.

Long waits for care, Mr. Wilson said, take a toll on families in the best of times – let alone when viruses are circling and the cost of living is skyrocketing. When parents can’t get good care for their children in their community, they have to go to hospitals, where emergency departments are already overwhelmed.

But community-based care, Mr. Wilson said, is struggling to keep staff, because the pay and hours are often better in the private sector or in schools. That creates its own bottleneck, he suggested, because while students may receive more timely assessments in schools, they end in the back of a long line in community-based care to get treatment for the problems identified.

Making it easier for youth to find and access treatment, he said, comes with “both a moral and economic imperative” when the long-term consequences for kids and their families are considered.

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