Gaps found in Alberta youth mental health services: University of Lethbridge study

Click to play video: 'U of L study highlights issues with mental health care for Alberta’s youth'
U of L study highlights issues with mental health care for Alberta’s youth
WATCH ABOVE: A recently published study by the University of Lethbridge looks into the issues facing families with children dealing with serious mental health issues. As Eloise Therien explains, the problems are widespread – Sep 29, 2021

A recently published University of Lethbridge study is highlighting problems in care for children and youth with serious mental health issues.

The study began in 2017 and involved interviewing 16 families across Alberta with children under 17 dealing with things like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and mania.

Dr. Brenda Leung, a member of the Health Sciences department at the U of L and one of the researchers involved in the study, said the conversations brought several issues to light.

“We talked to parents in urban settings and rural settings, those who had what we consider higher socio-economic levels,” she said. “What we found was there was so much commonality to the shared experience among these families.”

Key findings of the research include a lack of continuum of care within public health, difficulty navigating the complex system and parents experiencing distress as a result.

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“They all reported very similar experiences and challenges that they had throughout trying to find proper health-care service, trying to find resources, having to be self-advocates for their children to kind the appropriate care,” Leung said.

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Cynthia Wandler has a 13-year-old daughter with complex mental health needs. She has struggled to find suitable care for years and left her job five years ago to care for her child and turn to advocacy.

“I know there are so many other parents having similar experiences to us, and it isn’t talked about,” she said.

“We pay for therapy for her privately, (and) she is linked with a psychiatrist through Alberta Health Services, but the path to get there was very long and very difficult.”

Wandler said one instance involved a school professional pointing the family to resources they actually weren’t eligible for, and they were turned away after spending weeks completing paperwork.

“The people that you trust to be in the know about the programming, or about the resources, actually aren’t.”

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Global News reached out to AHS for response to the findings of the study. A statement was provided, but it did not directly address the concerns outlined.

“AHS provides a range of programming and treatment options for children and youth, including counselling services for youth through community mental health clinics, specialized and hospital-based services that help to treat mental health issues,” the statement read.

“Across the province we have a total of 111 acute mental health beds for children and youth and 18 stand-alone psychiatric beds for a total of 129 beds; additionally, there are 47 community mental health and 56 addiction beds for intermediate to long-term treatment for children and youth.

“There are more than 135 addiction and mental health community clinics throughout Alberta that provide intake, assessment, diagnosis, referral and treatment services for children, youth and their families, in both urban and rural settings.”

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Wandler and Leung are hoping to shed some light on the apparent issues in the system through this research, and have proposed changes like adding a parent advisory committee and creating a multi-system approach where health care, the school system and social services have the same information and can collaborate.

“I mean, if it was easy, we wouldn’t have the kinds of findings that we do in the study,” Wandler said.

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