By Mariette Chartier
and Marni Brownell
University of Manitoba
Mental illness is the most common illness found in Canada’s children and teens. We all know a young person who struggles with depression, anxiety, an addiction or a behavioural disorder. Mental illness causes high levels of distress in children and can significantly interfere with their lives.
But mental illnesses can often be prevented from developing, or becoming more severe and difficult to treat.
A report from the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy found that 14 per cent of all children and teens in the province were diagnosed by a doctor with at least one mental disorder during the four-year study. 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 per cent of high school students had a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress and 12 per cent seriously thought about suicide in the past year. A report prepared for the British Columbia government found that 12.6 per cent of four-to-17-year-old children experienced 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 socio-economic levels.
But children in families with many parenting challenges – like poverty, being a teen mom or being involved with child welfare services – are at greater risk of developing mental illness. Our results also suggest children from rural areas may not have adequate and timely access to mental health services.
Manitoba records over a four-year period show that 74 out of 100,000 teens died by suicide. And these tragic deaths are only a fraction of those with mental illness. For every teen suicide, there are another 200 or more teens who struggle with depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (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’s crucial to instil hope in our young people and 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 lifelong health and success for this future generation?
It’s essential to develop and invest in a comprehensive child and youth mental health strategy at provincial and national levels. We need strategies to promote positive mental health and provide supports and services early in the illness. Home visiting in early childhood, for example, reduces depression, anxiety and use of substances in children.
Children require a warm, nurturing environment. High levels of stress damage the mental health of children. Prevention programs include positive parenting, home visiting, anti-bullying initiatives and mental health promotion in schools – all aimed at preventing mental illness from developing.
More than half of mental disorders have their roots in childhood, so increasing resources for children will reduce the burden of mental illness in adulthood.
Our study found that children with mental illnesses are more likely to have lower grades and less likely to graduate. They’re also more likely to be accused of a crime or to be victimized. They’re more likely to be from families living in social housing or receiving income assistance.
Increasing the mental health knowledge and skills of people working with children across education, social services and justice systems would mitigate the untoward effects of mental illness.
Canada spends too little on mental health compared to other developed countries. The Mental Health Commission of Canada recommends that nine per cent of health budgets should go to improving mental health services.
Investments in mental health and wellness for children and teens will go a long way toward creating hope and a brighter future.
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. 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 a 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.