This independent journalism is made possible by a Future of Good editorial fellowship on building community resilience, funded by Cooperators. See our editorial ethics and standards here.
TORONTO/TREATY 13 – In the 17 years Jason Carey has worked at Kids Help Phone, he’s never seen the organization this large — or the need for it so dire.
Carey, day manager for the organization’s 24/7 anonymous counselling service, says youth mental health services like Kids Help Phone are seeing demand for their services increase dramatically.
“When we say ‘mental health,’ people think about adults. But kids and teenagers are definitely an underserved population,” he says.
Experts were ringing the alarm over youth mental health before the pandemic even hit: a 2019 Statistics Canada survey found youth aged 15 to 30 were more likely to have poor mental health than older adults. The survey also found that young women in particular were suffering the effects of poor mental health. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, females aged 15 to 17 are twice as likely to be hospitalized due to mental health concerns as males of the same age.
COVID-19 only made things worse. The Canadian Mental Health Association, also referred to by the acronym CMHA, released a report earlier this year that found three of every four children with a mental health issue can’t find the care they need in Canada.
Carey estimates Kids Help Phone doubled the number of counsellors on staff in the first year of the pandemic in an attempt to meet the growing demand. In 2019, the service logged 1.9 million individual interactions with youth seeking support — it’s logged another 14 million since 2020.
Shelters also struggling
Shelters serving youth populations are also struggling to meet the demand for their services, which include behavioural interventions and parental support. Vishnu Thapaliya, program manager at Kids Kottage in Edmonton, says their “turnover rate is very high” because the shelter doesn’t have enough beds to house every child in need.
As the only crisis prevention shelter exclusively for infants and children in the Edmonton area, the seven bedroom facility can only house people for an average of 72 hours. “But 72 hours is not enough to mitigate or solve the crisis,” Thapaliya says.
Sometimes children will be paired with someone from Kids Kottage to support their caregivers after their stay. Support often takes the form of connecting caregivers with other services, like healthcare providers and daycare centres.
Social purpose organizations often pick up slack in the social safety net, experts say. A recent report by the non-profit organization, People for Education, found only nine per cent of Ontario schools employ a mental health professional.
Thapaliya estimates that 30 to 40 percent of children he sees at the shelter have experienced some kind of neglect. The root causes could be abuse, poverty or a caretaker that is experiencing their own mental health crisis.
The Kottage also takes in children referred to them by Alberta Children’s Services while a more permanent home is found. But while these children are given safety in the shelter, there may not be the capacity to address deeper physical or psychological needs during their brief stay.
“Most of the time, finding a placement is more imminent for [Children’s Services] than providing support to the children,” Thapaliya says. “They may not find that placement for three to five months … Overall timely intervention is lacking.”
More money, more staff needed
To better deal with increasing demand for service, Kids Help Phone has launched a $300 million fundraising initiative — the largest Carey has seen during his time at the organization.
The funds raised will go towards expanding the organization’s crisis support and clinical services, as well as supporting mental health initiatives targeting racialized and Indigenous youth, says Aaron Sanderson, one of the organization’s senior vice presidents.
“But it’s also about mobilizing the country around youth mental health, and ensuring that they understand the severity of the challenge that we are facing,” he said, pointing out youth mental health is often lumped together with adults’ even though specialized pediatric care exists for their physical health.
In May a group of researchers with the Canadian Pediatric Society publically called for better education for pediatricians and more funding for support services like crisis helplines. The organization says pediatricians often act as the primary mental health service providers for children despite having limited psychiatric training.
Carey hopes the funds raised by Kids Help Phone will go towards hiring more frontline volunteers managing its confidential texting service, often the first point of contact with children in crisis. Hiring and training more professional counsellors is also a goal, but the extensive training they receive makes job onboarding a slower process.
Counsellors, who typically have prior experience working with children and teenagers before they are hired, go through a six-month period of staggered training in child welfare issues, occupational health and safety, equity issues like working with Indigenous youth, and managing their own mental health.
And it can be a taxing job, in part because anyone between the ages of five and 29 can be on the other end of the line. “They could be on a phone call with a 12-year-old, dealing with issues that are more typical for an adolescent,” Carey says. “And then their next call could be with somebody who’s 29 and dealing with domestic violence, addiction issues, or sexual assault.”
The vast demand for children’s mental health services and the complexities of these services are challenging for social purpose organizations — and some say government intervention is a better solution.
Several mental health service providers, including the CMHA and the Canadian Child Care Federation, say they need more federal funding in order to meet demand. To that end, they’ve launched a campaign called Act for Mental Health calling for universal mental healthcare.
In a press release for the campaign this February, CHMA National CEO Margaret Eaton said publicly-funded community-level services were needed to fix the “patchwork” of children’s mental health.
“Our system forces children to get very sick before we give them mental health care. This is an irrational and cruel way to offer care,” Eaton said.
Without calling for government funding, Carey agrees the situation has grown dire. “The level of stress that young people feel is not going away anytime soon. So what needs to change is the support that we can give them.”