The Toronto District School Board – and parents – got a wake-up call last week when results of an extensive survey of high-school students found teens stressed to the max, worrying about their future, losing sleep, and one in three saying they feel like crying. The results didn't shock David O'Brien, supervisor of East Metro Youth Services, which has been running the What's Up Walk-In clinic in Scarborough – the first in the city to offer free mental-health counselling five days a week. Since opening a year and a half ago, it has assisted 1,100 emotionally challenged teenagers and their families deal with issues such as depression, bullying, addiction and sexual-identity issues. The clinic's track record has since prompted two other Toronto walk-in clinics to hang open-for-business signs five days a week (up from one).
The results of the TDSB survey of 103,000 students didn't shock you. Why?
We've been seeing this for years. I believe technology is making people more anxious and worried. I also think our city has changed and is becoming more complex. But I'm not sure kids are necessarily more stressed than in the past. I just think people are talking more about mental-health issues. There's not so much stigma attached to it. The real concern for me with the TDSB study is that kids don't feel they can talk to people. That's why we're here. We create the space where youth – and their parents, too – can come in, feel safe and talk to somebody. Demand for this kind of easy, accessible support is on the rise. When we opened, people started coming by bus from Durham, the west end and downtown. We were shocked, and it's what prompted affiliated walk-ins such as Yorktown Family Services (St. Clair and Dufferin) and Oolagen (Wellesley St. E) to expand from one to five days a week.
How did the What's Up Walk-In clinic happen?
We got a $150,000 grant from the Ministry of Childhood Services, and opened the clinic in November, 2011, to address the appalling long wait lists for counselling services, which were averaging nine months. Not a healthy situation for people in crisis. Besides the one-hour counselling we provide for walk-in clients, we also have a more intensive three-month counselling service that goes into people's home. We have that wait list down to three weeks.
To whom does the clinic primarily cater?
We have a huge number of clients who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Farsi, Dari and Tamil, so in addition to our three full-time therapists, we also bring in therapists who can speak those languages and understand the challenges these people face trying to bridge Western culture with the cultures they've come from. Many feel very isolated. The majority of people we see are aged 17 to 21, and the walk-in model really fits the youth culture, which wants things to happen here and now. They're impulsive – often coming in after driving by, walking along the street, or being counselled to seek help from a teacher or police officer. Instead of waiting two weeks for an appointment, we see them right away. Plus, we don't make them fill out reams of paperwork. It's two pages, and we help them with everything from anxiety over a test to trouble in the family home.
Is this a model you think the city will try to emulate?
I know the Ministry of Childhood Services is definitely looking at making the walk-in concept part of their transformation plan. There are other walk-in clinics opening up across Ontario, and we're getting calls from other agencies asking how to do it. We've also experienced huge demand from families struggling with a child who is autistic, so we're in the works now of planning a specialty around that because there's a huge wait list for autistic services. We want to be able to help these people cope right away while they wait to get into the longer-term programs.