More than half of Canadian children and youth who accessed mental health services during the past six months said they were not easily obtainable, according to a study published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) on Thursday.
CIHI talked to 4,000 people across Canada based on an online survey using social media recruitment and found that in 2022, three out of five children and youth aged 12 to 24 with self-reported early needs accessed mental health and substance use services.
In general, males are less likely to ask for help when experiencing mental health or substance use issues and access fewer services in general, which the new data reflects, said Seanna McMartin, program lead at the CIHI.
About half of boys and young men were able to access early mental health intervention services compared to more than 60 per cent of their female counterparts, and 80 per cent of transgender and non-binary children and youth, the data shows.
McMartin told Global News that the new data can provide policymakers with information to understand where more services are needed, and the different issues people encountered when trying to access mental health services.
“These indicators will tell a clear story about access to care across the country,” said McMartin. “They can help to identify where there are gaps in services to improve care at the front lines and to better meet the needs of patients and their families.”
The study also found that only a small proportion of transgender or nonbinary individuals; people who identified as gay, lesbian or another sexual orientation; individuals with less than high school education; and individuals with lower income families say that they have the necessary support to navigate the system.
McMartin said the pandemic could be one of the reasons causing these individuals to face more barriers, such as changes to service delivery and financial challenges.
McMartin says it is important to make sure Canadians can easily access mental health services especially when many in the country are continuing to experience the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that early intervention in youth mental health can help prevent problems becoming more severe over time.
“We know that if help is provided to young people early in their lives, that can prevent small problems from turning into big ones by accessing services early, it can help reduce symptoms in the severity of the issues and may help to avoid or delay progression to a diagnosed disorder,” said McMartin.
The data also shows two out of five Canadians aged 15 and older say they always or usually had support navigating mental health and substance use services over the last year. But according to McMartin, this highlights that many may not have the flexibility when moving between services due to the lack of options.
“The mental health system is complex, and people often need to move to more than one service and (the data) is really telling us that most people aren’t able to move between their services well, which may prevent them from getting the care they need,” said McMartin.
Sarah Dow-Fleisner, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Social Work, says it is crucial to have well-rounded, comprehensive mental services to support youth since they are “undergoing so many developmental changes” both physically, psychologically and cognitively.
Dow-Fleisner says early intervention in cases of substance use and mental health issues can help to support “optimal brain development,” so that children and youth don’t end up having more severe levels of addiction or substance use.
Although it is never too late for people to receive treatment, prevention is always better, Dow-Fleisner told Global News.
“When we think about youth substance use, we have found that prevention and early intervention can help shorten the course and the impact of problematic substance use,” she said. “Whereas if we wait and wait and wait and wait, we run the risk of those mental health concerns and the substance use concerns becoming even more difficult to treat.”
Dow-Fleisner says the best solution is to listen to what the youth need and provide them with support in an effort to honour their right to bodily autonomy and self-determination while providing them the resources to make informed decisions.
“I think historically we’ve relied on experts like myself to say ‘this is what we think is going to help’ … and we’re actually shifting now to where we’re talking to youths,” said Dow-Fleisner. “We’re asking them about what is impacting their decision to use substance, what is impacting their decision to access care.”