Early detection key to treating mental health in kids

Duane Hicks

One-in-five Ontario children and youth has a mental health problem, according to Children’s Mental Health Ontario.
These disorders range from anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to eating disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and even early psychosis.
If left untreated, these disorders could lead to failure at school, conflicts with family, drug abuse, violence, or even suicide.
But the good news is that help is available and treatment does work, said Troy Clink, manager of children’s mental health at Family & Children’s Service here.
May 2-9 is Children’s Mental Health Week, which Clink said is a good opportunity to increase public awareness of the signs of child and youth mental health problems as well as decrease stigma.
Clink said one misconception some members of the public still have is that a person has to have schizophrenia, or something equally extreme, in order to be considered as having a mental health problem.
“It does not have to be as severe as that,” he stressed. “You’ve got kids who are struggling to pay attention, you’ve got kids struggling with life adjustment issues after a divorce.
“Those really present mental health challenges.”
Clink said the reason why children’s mental health really needs to have a voice is because, just as with physical health issues, early detection is important.
“Early detection can really help these kids avoid substance abuse later on and run-ins with the law—quite often jails have a high number of folks with mental health challenges,” he noted.
“That’s what we’re pushing for, a proactive stance to catch things early in kids as opposed to ignoring kids, ignoring the issues and challenges that they’re facing, and just waiting for them to become more and more intense as they get older.”
Clink said times have changed, and a child previously thought to be “oppositional” now may be recognized as having an attention deficit disorder and get the help they need.
“That was never talked about when I was a kid,” he remarked. “So I think a lot of people, because things were missed and the knowledge wasn’t there, really missed out on a lot of success they could have had if someone could have come alongside them and showed them some tools that would allow them to succeed in school.”
Likewise, more people are getting over the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues for themselves and their children.
This has led to a greater demand for mental health services.
Clink said the process to access services at FACS, including children’s mental health services, is as follows:
•Call FACS at 274-7787 and ask to speak to Integrated Services Northwest.
•Case workers will set up an appointment to meet with the family or child, take their information, go through the intake process, and sign consent forms.
•After deciding with the family what program would best suit the child’s needs, case workers then forward that information to the appropriate program manager.
•The program manager then prioritizes the level of severity of the issue, and the child is put on a list to receive counselling.
“The reason we have to have a prioritizing system is because we simply do not have enough counsellors to meet the needs of the Rainy River District,” Clink explained.
A major problem that is facing children’s mental health—here and elsewhere in Ontario—is a lack of funding.
Clink said the province only has increased funding to children’s mental health once in the past 15 years. And with inflation, that lack of any new funding means there’s fewer counsellors to see clients each year, and thus very long waiting lists.
The children’s mental health program at FACS, at any one time, is serving about 120 clients up to age 18. With seven mental health counsellors on staff (five in Fort Frances and two in Atikokan), the waiting list is six months to a year.
“It’s very common throughout the entire province of Ontario for kids to wait at least up to a year, depending on the issue that’s brought them into services,” noted Clink.
“Some issues can’t wait, but there’s other issues that just will not get the support very quick.
“That’s a big reason why Children’s Mental Health Week was created. We wanted to give a voice to these kids who are simply waiting.
“They’re not voters. I don’t know if their voice is always heard,” he added.
Clink stressed that what children’s mental health programs are concerned about is if children are left on waiting lists for too long, their issues become more intense—and it can escalate to suicide.
“That makes having a wait list very hard,” he remarked. “You know these kids need help, but you don’t have the resources to reach them.
“And quite often, it’s logical to expect there’s going to be deterioration of people on the waiting list.”
In addition to counsellors, FACS also has a psychometrist to do psychological assessments.
As well, FACS holds videoconferences with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to provide psychiatric consultations to determine the proper medications for psychological disorders.
“For a small populated area—I’ve worked in the cities quite a bit—I was really amazed at how easy it is access this level of service,” Clink admitted.
“To get a psychiatric consultation is really hard. But because of the modern technology we have, and the agreement we have with Toronto Sick Kids, we are really able to provide excellent psychiatric support.
“But it’s the counselling that people desperately want—they want that ongoing support as opposed to one or two consultations,” he stressed.
“That’s where we see our biggest need, for sure.”
Prevalent issues
While FACS sees a range of children’s mental health issues among its clients, a big one is anxiety and depression amongst young teens.
Clink said high school students, especially those in Grades 9 and 10, face a lot of pressure. And those who do not get support and help often will turn to substance abuse as they attempt to self-medicate.
“It’s an unhealthy, risky escape but it’s an escape,” he explained. “It gives them an immediate sense of relief.”
Clink said substance abuse is a bigger problem in Fort Frances than most people realize, and believes a large part of that is because there’s “kids who are overwhelmed with their anxieties at that age and the challenges they’re facing.”
Another common issue is family relationships.
“We treat the whole family,” Clink said. “The whole family is under a lot of pressure, and quite often mom and dad are really struggling to cope with the challenges their kids are facing, they’re struggling to parent that child.
“We try to equip parents with tools. We put on parenting courses right here at the agency,” noting Clink, citing the recent “Love and Logic” course as a good example.
“We try to improve that parent-child relationship,” he added. “That parent is the child’s natural support system, and if you can improve that relationship, it’s going to go a long way with helping this kid with whatever they’re struggling with.
“We try to take a holistic approach. . . . There’s a whole system around this child that we have to support.”
When it comes to overcoming mental health challenges, Clink said the program tries to give people choices and work with them to find solutions.
“It’s a shared responsibility,” he reasoned. “We need to come alongside folks and support them. They need to strive to make the choices, to use the supports that we bring.
“The tools, the clinical interventions that we have access to, are very effective.
“But just like any tool, unless the person chooses to pick up and use it, it’s not going to do much good,” he lamented.
Working together
Clink noted FACS works with other agencies in the community, including Weechi-ti-win Family Services, which has its own children’s mental health program.
“We work with them, and they have more of a traditional, aboriginal component to their mental health program,” he said.
“So that if an aboriginal person would like to have that as their treatment modality, that is available.”
The children’s mental health program at FACS also works with the local school boards, and their clinicians are in schools on a regular basis.
“We have a really great working relationships with the schools, with Weechi-ti-win, with the agencies around town,” said Clink.
“Good partnerships, good relationships among the professionals, means better service for the clients.”
As well, since FACS is an integrated agency, there is seamless communication and cross-referral between its various programs.
Clink noted it’s not uncommon for families to receive help from children’s mental health and another program at the same time.
“So many folks, when they think of FACS, the only thing they think about is child protection or foster care,” he said.
“[But] there are a lot more programs under this roof than just those two,” he stressed. “There’s children’s mental health, the child development program, supervised access program, and more than that.”
To celebrate Children’s Mental Health Week, FACS is inviting the public to Plaza Lanes this Friday (May 7) from 6-8 p.m. to enjoy free bowling and snacks.
Clink said all families are welcome to come out for free hotdogs, chips and pop, and bowling, as well as to learn more about children’s mental health services provided in Rainy River District.
“We’re going to have an informational booth set up there so that people can find out what our program has to offer, find out more information about mental health challenges and issues, and find out more about things that can be helpful,” he noted.
“It’s not just the kids that are challenged with mental health issues,” he reiterated. “The whole family is. It’s not a vacuum.
“We also want to promote family togetherness because obviously that’s a huge part of children having the best chance of good mental health—strong, healthy families,” added Clink.
“People need to be active; families need to be doing stuff together.”
FACS held a similar event in Atikokan this past Tuesday.
For more information about children’s mental health services, contact FACS at 274-7787.