Capital News Online: The politics of health

Growing up in the rural community of Renfrew Ont., wasn’t easy for now 21-year-old Dustin Garron. Like many young Canadians, Garron endured years of bullying, trying unsuccessfully to fit in and make new friends, before becoming suicidal in his later elementary school days.

Those suicidal thoughts only swelled in high school until Garron sat down with his mother to have an honest conversation.

“(I) told her I’m not feeling well,” he says. “I told her, ‘you know mom, I don’t want to be around anymore.”

Garron’s mother took him to the hospital on March 17, 2011. He would be hospitalized another two times over the subsequent five months. Between 2011 and 2013, Garron tried to kill himself eight times.

Although Garron’s story is horrifying, it’s something many Canadian youth have had to deal with, many without receiving the care and recovering the way Garron did.

By the numbers

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will suffer from a mental-health problem at some point in their lives.

The effects can be particularly devastating for young Canadians. Suicide accounts for 25 per cent of all deaths in people ages 15 to 19, the second leading cause of death for the age group. Only automotive accidents are more deadly to youth with 35 per cent of all deaths occurring by accident.

The lack of resources in rural communities is astonishing.— Dustin Garron

Christopher Canning, manager at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says while campaigns like #BellLetsTalk may have helped reduce the stigma around mental health, Canada still lacks the necessary services for youth to combat this issue.

“It’s obviously an extraordinarily important issue, especially because a lot of the research suggests that youth are not receiving the services that they need,” he says. “I know that there are far more people that need services than are available and there’s a huge waiting list for people that need any sort of care.”

Lack of access to services

Further demonstrating this problem is the fact that only one in four youth who have a mental-health problem or illness have actually received services, according to the Mental Health Commission.

The lack of access to services is created by what experts like Canning refer to as a two-tier system for treating mental-health problems. Generally in Canada, government provided health-care only covers the cost of psychological support services provided by psychiatrists, which typically requires a one-year waiting period to get an appointment.

Conversely, if a family has the finances for it, they can choose to pay for psychological services through a psychiatrist or social worker in the private sector.

The lack of services is most apparent in indigenous Canadians. (Watch the video below for more on this subject).

Garron, who now sits on the Youth Council for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says this problem is even worse in rural settings like Renfrew, since parents are forced to drive hours to receive help for their children.

“The lack of resources in rural communities is astonishing,” he says. “I believe that we have to begin investing in smaller organizations that are trying new things, because they’re the ones that kids are going to directly and accessing.”

Footing the bill

WES For Youth Online is a smaller organization Garron advocates for in the rural community of Walkerton, Ont.

Founded in 2012 by Yolanda and Jamie Cameron after losing their son Wes to suicide, WES For Youth Online is a free online counseling service provided to young people in midwestern Ontario.

Cameron says it was important for her to make the organization’s services free to youth to allow them to seek help privately if they want to.

“We don’t want finances to be a reason why young people don’t get help,” she says. “If it’s free to youth, they don’t need to ask their parents for money, they don’t need to ask their parents to make the appointment and, in our case, it’s all online so it’s accessible to youth no matter where they are.”

Cameron says she expects online counseling services like theirs to be the way to reach youth in the future, since young people are spending more and more time using instant communication technology like cellphones and laptops.

The costs of running WES For Youth can reach $198,000 per year, Cameron says, noting that her organization is funded through grants and charity rather than receiving government funding.

According to the Mental Health Commission, this is an area where Canada underspends. Seven per cent of every dollar spent on health care in the country goes toward mental health, compared to other countries like New Zealand and the U.K., which range from 10 to 11 per cent.

The possibility of change

The newly elected Liberal government has pledged to invest $3 billion in health care over four years. Their promise is aimed mostly at improving in-home care, but also mentions upgrading mental-health services.

With government funding, Cameron says her organization would be able to expand their goals to create a “one-stop shop for mental-health services.”

Dr. Stan Kutcher, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says that Canada doesn’t need to invest a massive amount to improve services.

He says greater emphasis has to be put on co-ordinating approaches with the school system and primary health professionals to create earlier identification of mental-health issues.

“The components that we need to have in the system are already there,” he says, while noting that some investment is needed. “What’s not there is the integration of different pieces within the system and enhancing the competencies of people already in the system.“

For now, Canada will have to wait for Prime Minister Trudeau to make the first move, after campaigning on the national platform of change. What will the future relationship between Canada and youth mental health look like?

“It’s a tricky question and I can’t answer it in the context of the government, because we don’t have a mandate or a relationship with them yet,” Canning says, but notes the prime minister’s call for the creation of a National Youth Advisory Group.

“As a first step from the Prime Minister’s Office, I think that’s a good commitment, especially because that group will be advising cabinet.”

Photo © Eric Elliott

Eric Elliott is a Bachelor of Journalism and Political Science student at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has experience working with the Ottawa Sun and Ottawa Citizen covering city news but specializes in sports reporting.

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