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Developments in the field of Child and Youth Care
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Parents worried about children's emotional health

A study released this week indicates Canadian parents are worried about their children's emotional well-being. The study, commissioned by Kinark Family and Children's Services, indicates that worry may be well-founded: 26 per cent of young Canadians aged 12 to 17 struggle with depression, stress and anxiety. The study's release coincides with the beginning of Children's Mental Health Week in Ontario.

Linda Langston doesn't have similar data to shed on the situation in Niagara, but has no doubt the study's findings hold true in this region. Langston, executive director of Niagara Child and Youth Services, says in many instances mental illness remains a carefully guarded family secret. Children do not want to be ostracized or bullied for being different. "It's still the hidden illness. We want to break that stigma down because treatment works," she says.

She points to recent findings by Children's Mental Health Ontario, an umbrella organization representing various local mental health program providers in the province. That agency states that one in five children has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Niagara is experiencing higher rates of mental health issues than the provincial average, Langston says. Factors such as the region's lower literacy rate and lower average income increase parents' stress.

To complicate matters, children's mental health treatment is vastly underfunded. Last year Niagara Child and Youth Services treated 3,100 of the estimated 18,000 children in Niagara who have mental health issues. Others remain on a waiting list. The provincial Ministry of Children and Youth Services requires children's mental health agencies treat only those most in need. In 2007, about 15 per cent of the more than 700 Niagara families who didn't make the initial cut reapplied for services within six months with "seriously-high clinical scores on the (Brief Child and Family Phone Interview)," states a Niagara Region report on the current status of children's mental health in Niagara.

The same report states youth services has a long waiting list for many of its services, "and many of these children/adolescents are at risk to themselves or to the community while waiting."

Despite the high quality of the youth services' programs (which was recently confirmed by a study conducted by the Richard Ivey School of Business), Langston says the situation is frustrating because a small investment in prevention can improve the lives of the children coping with mental health difficulties. "You don't make a child wait six months to have their broken arm set. But that's what we do with mental health. It's frustrating that society creates this stigma," she says.

While Children's Mental Health Week is intended to shine a light on some of the shortcomings, it is also meant to highlight the successes. Niagara Child and Youth Services has programs to help children who have been victims of abuse, children who are fascinated with fire and other programs that can benefit children and their families. "Treatment works. We have helped a lot of children," she says.

Derek Swrtz
6 May 2008

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