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Overtaxed mental health system failing Ontario’s children, Brantford mother says

McMaster Children's Hospital is seen in this file image. Global News

Darien Murray’s seven-year-old son, Jackson, talks about self-harm and is becoming too violent for the Brantford woman to handle.

“He’s told doctors that he wants to hurt himself (and) he’s thought about how he would do it,” Murray said.

“He’s become a danger to himself, to his teachers, to other students, and now he’s even become a danger to me.”

A hospital psychiatrist made the same assessment, Murray said, when she took Jackson to London Children’s Hospital’s emergency department because he was experiencing a mental-health crisis.

Murray said Jackson became violent and attacked her in the waiting room, prompting security to intervene. She said doctors eventually told her they “didn’t feel comfortable” admitting Jackson to the mental-health ward as an in-patient.

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“The biggest barrier is that he’s seven and they don’t want to put him in with teenagers,” Murray said.

A spokesperson for London Health Sciences Centre said the decision to hospitalize a child in crisis is made on a case-by-case basis by the emergency room doctor, with input from a child psychiatrist.

“If the best course of action for the patient is hospitalization, the patient, as long as they are under the age of 18, will be admitted to the mental health unit at Children’s Hospital,” Steve Young said in an email to The Spectator.

Jackson has been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, anxiety and poor emotional self-regulation, said Murray, who believes generational trauma due to Jackson’s Indigenous heritage on his father’s side “plays a big part in the issues he faces.”

“We have adolescent (mental-health) services. We have adult services. It’s just crazy to me that there’s not more help for kids like him,” she said.

“I took him to McMaster (Children’s Hospital in Hamilton), which has a dedicated child and youth mental-health service team, and the psychiatrist wouldn’t even see him because he wasn’t actively in crisis at that moment. Meanwhile, he had attacked staff and students at the school earlier that day.”

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The lack of help leaves Murray afraid for Jackson’s long-term prospects while wondering if her “sweet, loving child” will do something drastic.

“I’m looking at two futures here — one where he’s going to be running a company somewhere and running the world, or I’m going to be looking at him through Plexiglas in a jail because he’s done something he can’t take back,” she said.

A spokesperson for Hamilton Health Sciences said no one from McMaster Children’s Hospital was available to be interviewed for this story and the hospital could not comment on specific patient cases.

In an emailed statement, the hospital said its Child and Youth Mental Health Program “provides a range of intensive and time-sensitive services for children, youth and families who are dealing with mental health concerns. The well-being of the children, youth and families we serve is our primary concern.”

The hospital said children experiencing a mental-health crisis should call 911 or a crisis line or visit the nearest emergency department.

Many children in Jackson’s situation do end up in hospital, according to Children’s Mental Health Ontario.

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The advocacy group conducted research that found hospitalizations for children and youth seeking mental-health treatment rose 71 per cent between 2010 and 2020, while emergency room visits were up 64 per cent.

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CMHO said hospitalizations for all other conditions fell by 26 per cent over that same decade.

McMaster is part of a coalition of hospitals and children’s health organizations in Ontario pushing for more funding from Queen’s Park for a range of children’s health-care services within the first 100 days of the Ford government’s second term.

“Across Ontario, more than 28,000 children are waiting for mental health treatment and wait times are at least three times longer than recommended clinical wait times,” the hospital’s statement read.

Children on average wait more than three months for intensive mental-health treatment, while those in need of specialized services can languish on wait lists for over two years, according to CMHO research published in 2020.

The advocacy group wants to see the province commit $300 million over five years to reduce wait times by hiring more staff and adding community-based treatment and counselling solutions.

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That makes sense to Murray, who is desperate to get her son into treatment while it can still help.

“If we had more resources, if we could get to children earlier, then we could prevent the need for as much intervention as an adolescent or as an adult,” she said.

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“But you can’t find resources that aren’t there.”

Murray said Jackson is usually a kind and caring sibling who loves to play Minecraft and solve math problems in his head.

But while in the grips of a mental-health crisis, he destroys property and “aggressively attacks adults and children.” Sometimes he tries to run away from school.

Jackson later “struggles to remember” his actions, Murray said.

“He doesn’t feel like it’s him. He feels like it’s somebody else who’s doing these things,” she said.

“I’m watching him slip away.”

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Jackson is enrolled in a play therapy program but has been on the intensive therapy wait list for over 18 months, Murray said. Twice he saw a psychiatrist through a rapid-access clinic, only to become unstable within weeks of each appointment.

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Murray is months into the long process of getting Jackson a referral to the Child and Parent Resource Institute in London, a provincially run resource centre geared toward children with complex emotional and behavioural disorders.

“I have begged doctors to admit him, to provide me services, to help me help him,” she said.

“What does it take? He’s worsening with each day.”

During the provincial election campaign, Murray heard candidates speak of the need to boost mental-health support for teens and post-secondary students.

“There was very little mention of children’s mental health,” she said. “And we’re seeing kids struggling more than they ever did.”

She recently vented her anger with the health-care system in a Facebook post and got an immediate response from frustrated parents.

“When you see how long wait lists are, you have to imagine how many people are going through the exact same thing,” Murray said.

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