A decade ago, Bell Let's Talk got Canadians speaking about mental health, many for the first time publicly. Over the 10 years since, I’ve been encouraged by the shift in language and growing recognition of the profound impact that mental illness has on our personal and professional lives, our families, our workplaces and our health care system. And this year’s theme of mental health: every action counts is more timely than ever.  It’s time we raised our voices to demand the mental health care support our young people deserve.

This week, Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) released our 2020 Report on Wait Lists and Wait Times For Child and Youth Mental Health Care. It reveals the scope of need for community child and youth mental health care and the action that we must take.

A staggering 28,000 Ontario children and youth are waiting for accessible, publicly-provided mental health and addiction services.

Wait times are also at record levels in many regions and for specific populations. The longest wait for community mental health child and youth services can reach 2.5 excruciating years. While they wait, our young people are suffering. Some of them will become suicidal, like my daughter did. And some will die by suicide, still waiting.

What’s more, persistent wide and inequitable gaps in access means where you live and the kind of service your child needs determines when you will receive support.

Sadly, while the number of young people waiting skyrockets, funding for community-based child and youth mental health care has been slashed in half over the past 25 years. This has ripple effects felt throughout our health care system, schools, and the broader economy. 

Let’s look at hospitalization, as just one example. While children wait for treatment, they often end up in hospital; in 2019 alone, nearly 100,000 children and youth were hospitalized in visits that could have been prevented with appropriate mental health care.

We know that early intervention in mental health care results in better outcomes – not just reduced emergency room visits and hospitalization, but also health improvements for a lifetime, and less lost productivity when parents aren’t missing work to care for children, and a dozen other positive impacts.  

It is important to acknowledge that Children’s Mental Health Ontario’s Child and Youth Mental Health Centres take action every day to serve 130,000 kids across the province. They are delivering high-quality mental health care. They are doing their best to improve the wait of thousands of children and youth. Today, faster help can be accessed through walk-in clinics, rapid access clinics, youth hubs, and group care. As well, improvements have been made to intake processes so kids are assessed quickly ensuring those at high-risk receive treatment quickly. However, despite the action, for those that aren’t requiring immediate care, they will wait. They will wait much longer than the evidence suggests is best practice.

Like many in the mental health sector, I welcome Bell Let’s Talk for prompting important conversations about mental health. I am also grateful for its grants that have supported CHMO member agencies and its youth groups.

But at a time when demand is rapidly outpacing our sector’s ability to innovate to stretch the impact of scarce resources, our children and youth need the Ontario government to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.

It’s not complicated. An increase in funding to community child & youth mental health services by only $150 million per year would have a measurable and meaningful impact:

  • Ensuring access to counselling and psychotherapy within 30 days
  • Expanding the range of intensive mental health and addiction services/supports for children and youth with significant and complex needs
  • Scaling 24/7 crisis support services to prevent kids and families from having to go to the emergency department
  • Increasing the age of eligibility up to 25 for child and youth mental health programs

Talk is good and important – and I ask each of you to include children and youth with mental health issues in your conversations this year on #BellLet’sTalk Day.

But it’s time to raise our voices louder. Because make no mistake: an entire generation is at risk if we don’t turn talk into real, meaningful action to address the urgent mental health crisis facing children and youth in this province.