Skip to main content

Keli Anderson, left, founder and ambassador of the FORCE. Society for Kids’ Mental Health, and Stephanie Cadieux, Children and Family Development Minister, discuss mental health and substance abuse services for children and youth in North Vancouver, B.C., on Feb. 4, 2015.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Keli Anderson's son began displaying signs of mental illness about 15 years ago, she didn't know where to turn. In a large notebook, the working mother would diligently document which service providers she had called each day, where they directed her, and which places she had to try next.

"It was a rat maze," Ms. Anderson recalled. "I was like, 'How would families know how to get through this?' "

On Wednesday, Ms. Anderson – now a mental health advocate and founder of the FORCE Society for Kids' Mental Health – stood alongside B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake and Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux at a news conference to announce two new initiatives aimed at making it easier to connect youth with mental health and addiction services.

The first is a new clinical intake process at all 72 child and youth mental health offices in B.C. that will allow for a young person to immediately meet with a clinician to determine whether he or she is eligible for mental health services, Ms. Cadieux said. (The old process might have meant being put on a months-long waiting list.) The second is an interactive online map with about 350 service providers and mental health intake offices plotted so people can know exactly where to get help.

In a Byzantine system that is difficult to navigate even for healthy, resourceful adults, the initiatives are a notable step forward.

"With child and youth mental health, there is a greater recognition of the seriousness of the problem than there was [before]," Mr. Lake said. "In the old paradigm, it was just something you kind of grew up with. We recognize that is not the right approach."

The province concedes that navigating the system has been challenging, he added.

Various indicators have shown that mental illness is a growing problem in British Columbia. At Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul's Hospital, emergency-room visits for mental health and substance misuse have increased by 55 per cent in the past five years, reaching 15,450 in 2014. Police apprehensions under Section 28 of the Mental Health Act have also climbed steadily, reaching 3,025 in 2014.

An estimated 140,000 youths in B.C. experience mental-health challenges, according to the province. Ms. Cadieux said more than 29,000 youths across B.C. currently receive community mental health services annually – more than double the number in 2003.

"It's a nasty trend that society has to wrestle with," Ms. Cadieux said. "There are not clear indications of why that is the case, but what we know is that these kids truly need help."

Ms. Anderson, whose son is now 25 and "doing great," said while the system has improved since her introduction to it 15 years ago, much more needs to done. As an example, she pointed to the dearth of mental-health services in schools.

The province spends $1.4-billion a year on mental health and addiction initiatives. Coming improvements include a new rehabilitation and recovery program at Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam with 40 long-term beds (14 of which are new); a $82-million mental health facility at Vancouver General Hospital; and an expansion of the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams into Surrey, Delta, Mission, Abbotsford, Kelowna and Kamloops.