Tens of thousands of BC’s young people are experiencing mental health problems every year but fewer than a third of them actually receive treatment. That was the stark message from the Director of SFU’s Children’s Health Policy Centre to the Members of the Legislative Assembly of BC on the Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth.
“About 13 percent of kids are experiencing one or more mental disorders,” said Charlotte Waddell, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Health Policy. “That means the total population affected is about 84,000 in BC at any given time, and about 678,000 in Canada. And we’re serving fewer than one-third of them,” she said. That translates to about 26,000 children and youth in BC and 212,000 in Canada.
Waddell presented her evidence to the committee June 11, 2014, when it was meeting in Vancouver as part of a special project examining youth mental health. Part of the committee’s mandate is to foster greater awareness and understanding of the BC child and youth service system.
In presenting her report, Waddell emphasized that most mental health problems start well before adulthood and, in fact, many start well before adolescence.
In the very early years, autism, anxiety, disruptive behaviours and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder emerge. In the middle years, seven to 12, anxiety, depression and conduct disorder begin to appear. Then, in the teen years, substance use, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia can take hold, Waddell said.
“Unspeakable losses and unspeakable severity are what we’re talking about,” she said. “If we don’t intervene and if we don’t intervene effectively these disorders persist, and they carry on throughout adulthood.”
As a result, young people may not finish school and may not even be able to participate in the workforce. They also have increased physical health problems, and “early mortality is significantly increased in people with mental health problems,” she said. The impact on society is also very serious, with costs exceeding $50 billion annually in Canada.
A large part of the problem, Waddell said is that Canada may spend $200 billion annually on health — but little of that goes to children and youth.
“I cannot imagine anyone saying that it was acceptable to have only 30 percent of kids with cancer receiving treatment when we had a host of effective treatments,” Waddell said. “But that’s what we’re doing with mental health problems.”
Waddell concluded by making five recommendations to the committee:
- Acknowledge that mental disorders start at the beginning of life and provide a comprehensive range of evidence-based interventions at each stage of development, starting in early childhood.
- Triple investments in evidence-based treatment services to reduce symptoms and impairment among all children and youth with established mental disorders.
- Make equivalent investments in evidence-based prevention programs to reduce both prevalence and the need for treatment services over time, starting with the four most common preventable disorders (anxiety, substance use, conduct and depressive disorders).
- Evaluate all treatment services and prevention programs to ensure they are effective.
- Invest in new data collection to monitor the prevalence of child and youth mental disorders over time.
“Investments in the mental health of young people are among the most important investments that any of us can make,” she told the committee.
Dr. Nicole Catherine has been appointed Mowafaghian University Research Associate with SFU’s Children’s Health Policy Centre. She is also Scientific Director for the BC Healthy Connections Project and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU.
Dr. Catherine completed her BSc in pharmacology at Dundee University, Scotland, followed by an MSc in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. She received her PhD in educational psychology at UBC, studying the neurobiology of social support and child behaviour. Before joining the Children’s Health Policy Centre, she was a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at SFU, studying the neurobiology of adolescent development. She has more than 10 years of experience leading randomized controlled trials.
Funding for this University Research Associate position is made possible by the generous support of the Mowafaghian Foundation, which aims to better the lives of children through health and education.
Held at the Wosk Centre, the half-day event attracted almost 150 academics, teachers, policy-makers and parents. Pepler spoke for roughly 45 minutes making a convincing case that social learning is just as important as academic learning and that Canadian children are socially behind children in other countries. Her talk included several videos of children in playgrounds being bullied.
Following her presentation, members of the audience contributed their observations and feedback. “Can we prevent bullying?” was the Mowafaghian annual Children’s health policy visiting speaker event.
When it comes to the three Rs, Canadian children and youth are doing well. A 2013 UNICEF report shows that Canada ranks 2nd out of 28 countries in terms of educational achievement. But the story is not so rosy for the 4th R — relationships. In the same UNICEF report, Canada ranks 25th of 28 countries in the quality of the relationships children and youth have with their parents and peers.
“We really need to close the gap between our relative success in educating our children and our children’s dismal reports regarding essential relationships,” says Debra Pepler, a York University Distinguished Research Professor who will be speaking in Vancouver on May 7 as the 4th Annual Mowafaghian Child Health Policy Visiting Speaker.
“Learning about relationships is much more difficult than learning to read or work with numbers,” she says. “Every relationship is different and even the same relationship varies from day to day.”
Why are relationships so important? Research by Pepler and others has shown that the quality of children’s relationships is about more than simply “feeling good.” It shapes gene expression, brain development, behaviour, and long-term health.
In her interactive presentation, Pepler will describe the five general strategies her group has identified for promoting positive relationships in order to prevent bullying. Her group — PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) — has been active since 2006 with funding from the federal government.
The event, which will take place at the Wosk Centre, 580 West Hastings Street, is free but limited to the first 160 people. Pre-registration is required.