The following is a transcript of a presentation to the Standing Committee of Finance and Economic Affairs from the CEO of St. Clair Child and Youth, Sue Barnes.

In the 2016 census, the county of Lambton had a total population of approximately 126,000 residents. Some 30% of them lived in rural areas, including our three Indigenous communities, and approximately 19% of the population were children and youth between the ages of zero and 17 years. During that same period, St. Clair Child and Youth Services served approximately 2,000 children and youth who presented with mental health concerns. 

As government, we urge you to pay particular attention to child and youth mental health, a sector that has been grossly and chronically underfunded for at least a decade. 

In Ontario, we know that the burden of untreated mental health is about $39 billion per year. This burden is approximately 1.5 times higher than all cancers put together. Intervention and effective treatment as early as possible can substantially reduce the lifetime burden of mental illness. It can keep kids at home and in school, and out of the hospitals and the justice system. 

We know that more than 70% of mental illnesses emerges during childhood, and that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among our youth aged 10 to 19. Our community has not been immune to the impact of suicide, and far too many young people are losing their lives. 

As leaders in mental health, we chose to tackle this issue head-on. Through education, training and a targeted awareness campaign, challenging the stigma associated with mental health occurred. We are working to change the conversation and change the outcome for many of our youths in our community. A recent successful example would be our partnership with minor and junior hockey called Face Off for Mental Health. 

Our investment to increase awareness around mental health and access to local resources is resonating with our community. However, this success has meant an increased demand on a system that is already taxed with long wait-lists and shortages of services. 

Feedback from community partners, families and youth identify a lack of access to timely mental health resources. Similar to provincial trends, we have seen a local increase of 27% of kids attending the emergency department with mental health concerns. Currently, 70% of clients who present at the emergency department do not meet the threshold for admission, and are returned to the community after long waits in the emergency department, sometimes up to eight hours. These unnecessary presentations not only create a bottleneck in the acute care system, but result in additional steps for those seeking much-needed mental health supports. In addition, for many, the emergency department is their first point of contact with the mental health system. This must change. 

An ideal model would have these kids attend St. Clair Child and Youth Services when the need is present. Once through our doors, they would receive a timely clinical assessment and appropriate therapeutic supports by experts in the field. Those who require acute mental health support offered by the hospital would be referred to Bluewater Health for admission. 

However, this model is only possible with funding directed to the community to expand access, rather than supporting kids waiting in the emergency department unnecessarily. 

Urgent/crisis mental health response for children and youth was identified as the most significant service gap in our community. As the lead agency (for the Sarnia-Lambton area), we have worked collaboratively with our community partners to develop a community-based model that addresses this need. Consultation with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Bluewater Health, the Family Counselling Centre, Huron House Boys’ Home and others has occurred. Despite the extensive consultation process, we continue to remain short of the resources required to support the development of an urgent/crisis service. 

We need to provide available, accessible access to services in our community that reflect identified need. We know that if children and youth receive help early, they will do better in the long term, putting fewer burdens on the system economically. 

Through the expansion of our walk-in clinics, we can make easier access a reality. However, by expanding from one day to two days a week and out to our rural and three Indigenous communities through internal reallocations, we created a backlog for our counselling and intensive services. Now we are looking to reallocate dollars from our core service community partners, at the expense of respite and residential services, to extend our walk-in to at least four days a week. 

It’s an inefficient situation and does not help the struggle that families are facing. As we try to solve one problem, we are creating another. 

We have engaged those most impacted by our system, our youth and our families, and they have told us over and over what they need, but we don’t have the resources to support these changes. We need to be proactive and not reactive, to help alleviate this crisis and act now. 

We all want the same thing: high-quality programs supported by evidence-informed practices, measurable outcomes, and accountability that supports the needs of our communities. 

We are confident that the provincial government will live up to its funding promise of $1.9 billion in new mental health funding. This influx of funding to support mental health and addictions will help address the mental health crisis we are currently facing across the province and in this community. 

We are hopeful that in this budget, a substantial amount will be directed to fund mental health treatment for children and youth. We believe an increase of $150 million per year towards children and youth mental health services will ensure the system is supported. 

Together we can build an integrated mental health system for kids and families in our community and across the province that increases services, reduces wait times, and makes access more available for those who need it, before a crisis arises. Thank you.