A version of this commentary appeared in the Hill Times, Winnipeg Free Press and the Huffington Post
Mental illness is the most common illness experienced by children and teens in Canada. Each one of us knows a child or a teen who is struggling with either depression, anxiety, an addiction or a behavioural disorder like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Mental illness not only causes high levels of distress in children, but can also interfere in significant and real ways with their lives.
What is not well known is that these illnesses are not inevitable. Mental illnesses can often be prevented from developing or from becoming more severe and difficult to treat.
A report we released this month from the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy found that 14 percent of all children and teens in Manitoba were diagnosed by a doctor with at least one mental disorder during the four-year study period. These are diagnosed cases, so if we included all children who experienced a mental disorder, the percentage would be higher.
Other provinces report similar findings. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario found that 34 percent of high school students had a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress and 12 percent seriously thought about suicide in the past year. A recent report prepared for the British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development, found that 12.6 percent of 4 — 17-year old children were experiencing a clinically significant mental disorder at any given time.
What struck us, in completing the Manitoba report, is that mental illness touches children from all corners of the province and across all socioeconomic levels. We found however, that some children are at greater risk.
Children who live in families with many parenting challenges like poverty, being a teen mom, or being involved with child welfare services have a greater risk of developing mental illness. Our results also suggest that children from rural areas may not have adequate access to mental health services — so that they cannot get treated early in the illness.
When we looked at Manitoba’s suicide records over a four-year period, we found that 74 out of 100,000 teens died by suicide. It is important to keep in mind that these tragic deaths are only a fraction of those with mental illness. For every teen suicide, there are another 200 or more teens who are struggling with depression, ADHD, addictions or schizophrenia.
Suicide most often occurs when mental illness — and the conditions that place children and teens at risk for mental illness — are not addressed. It is crucial to instil hope in our young people and to build awareness of the many solutions to their problems.
So how can we better support children with mental illness? How do we create hope and better life-long health and success for this future generation?
It is essential to develop and invest in a comprehensive Child and Youth Mental Health Strategy at provincial and national levels. What is required are strategies to both promote positive mental health and to provide supports and services early in the illness. Home visiting programs in early childhood, for example, have been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and use of substances in children.
Children require a warm nurturing environment. High levels of stress negatively impact the mental health of children. Prevention programs include positive parenting, home visiting, anti-bullying initiatives and mental health promotion approaches in schools — all strategies aimed at preventing mental illness from developing in the first place.
Increasing resources for mental health promotion in children will pay off big in reducing mental illness burden in adulthood — given that more than half of mental disorders have their roots in childhood.
Our study found that children with mental illnesses are more likely to have lower grades in school and are less likely to graduate from high school. They are also more likely to be accused of a crime or to be victimized. They are more likely to be from families living in social housing or receiving income assistance.
Increasing mental health knowledge and skills of people working with children across sectors like education, social services and justice would mitigate the untoward effects of mental illness.
Canada currently spends too little on mental health compared to other developed countries. The Mental Health Commission of Canada recommends that nine percent of health budgets should go to improving mental health services.
Investments in mental health and wellness will go a long way into creating hope and a brighter future for children and teens.
Mariette J. Chartier, RN, PhD, is a Research Scientist at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba. Dr. Chartier has published in the area of population health, mental health and prevention and early intervention programs for children and their parents.
Marni Brownell, PhD, is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. She is also a Senior Research Scientist with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, and a Research Scientist with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba.