People say the world is recovering from COVID-19, but the crisis has expanded far beyond the pandemic. Hospitals and emergency rooms across Canada are reporting an unprecedented number of visits and significantly higher wait times, especially for mental-health related concerns. And it is our children and youth who are shouldering a large part of this crisis.
With respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and pneumonia further exacerbating long wait times and worsening patient acuity, mental-health services continue to be neglected. Melanie Bechard, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at CHEO and President of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, notes that additional time and attention is needed from health-care professionals to provide proper support and treatment to children and youth.
“The gaps in mental-health care are arguably even wider [than for physical health],” Bechard says. Those gaps stem from inconsistencies in provincial and territorial public health plans for access to mental-health professionals (including psychotherapists, social workers, etc.).
Debra Lefebvre, an Ontario mental health Registered Nurse, explains that the “uncertainty, unpredictability and isolation” brought on by the pandemic have escalated children and youth’s mental health to “crisis proportions.”
It is for this reason that Young Canadians Roundtable on Health (YCRH) is renewing calls for Canadian governments to take action.
In 2021, Children First Canada, in conjunction with many of the top children’s hospitals and advocacy organizations across Canada, including the YCHR, organized the #codePink campaign. Code Pink is a term often used in hospitals to announce a pediatric emergency.
Our youth are still under a Code Pink. It is for this reason that we urge our federal and provincial governments to take action and recommend the following:
1) Support a pan-Canadian network of peer-led community organizations. Mood Disorders Society of Canada (2022) proposed the creation of a pan-Canadian network of peer-led community organizations who collaborate to share knowledge, resources and programming. Increasing opportunities for this network to work with primary-care providers would result in more accessible shared resources and facilitate an improved referral process, so that no child falls through the cracks.
2) Reduce barriers to access mental-health services. Increasing resourcing to support low-barrier mental-health services (such as free, sliding scale and virtual services) to support children and youth upstream before they need to access emergency health-care services. This will mitigate the pressures experienced by emergency departments across the country.
3) Promote pediatric equity through targeted investment in mental-health and substance-use services for children and youth. Services that were reduced or discontinued during the pandemic deserve both replacement and additional professionals (whether from additional educational funding or expanding services to include different types of health-care professionals). Improved support would result in an increase in the resources available to provide care and treatment to children and youth.
Supporting our recommendations, Act for Mental Health, a Canadian Mental Health Association petition and campaign, suggests that the federal government create a permanent Canada Mental Health and Substance Use Health Transfer equivalent to 12 per cent of provincial and territorial health-care spending ($5.3 billion), which would be ramped up over five years, with 50 per cent directed to community services. Further, increased investments in substance use prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery services are needed. According to Act for Mental Health, “Canadians pay at least $1 billion per year on private psychological services.” Government funding for mental-health services is a wise investment, as “every dollar spent on mental health returns $4 to $10 to the economy… investment in mental health and substance-use health is not new money ‘out.’ It is money saved, and it is money injected back into the economy.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had numerous impacts on children and youth across Canada and revealed inequitable access to mental health care across the country. This continues to be further exacerbated by other illnesses, burnout, attrition of health-care providers, and the deprioritization of children and youth by politicians and policymakers. This must change.
There are 8 million children who deserve better access to health care in this country. Every day of a child’s life matters. It is time for Canadian governments to act … before it is too late.