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Advocate says B.C. government must invest in mental-health services for children and youth

One young person ended up in a maternity ward, another was discharged to a homeless shelter. Even more got sent to adult psychiatric units where they suffered additional trauma. This is how B.C.
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Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C’s Representative for Children and Youth, released the 122-page report, Still Waiting, drawing on information from surveys, focus groups and interviews with 853 youth, parents, caregivers and mental-health professionals.

One young person ended up in a maternity ward, another was discharged to a homeless shelter. Even more got sent to adult psychiatric units where they suffered additional trauma.

This is how B.C. treats young people with mental illnesses today, because its system of supports is so fractured, confusing and short of resources, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, in a report released Tuesday.

“It has become obvious to the representative that the mental health system for children and youth in B.C. is actually not a system at all, but rather a patchwork of services that is inconsistent from region to region and community to community,” the report says.

“It is confusing for youth, their families and even the professionals who serve them, and therefore, actually getting the required services is often near to impossible.”

The report notes that B.C. has a good mental-health plan for children and youth, but it remains unfulfilled due to a lack of provincial leadership.

“It is, at this point, more of a work of fiction, because the direct services to support it are not there,” Turpel-Lafond said in an interview.

The report recommends that B.C. fill the leadership void by establishing a new Ministry of State for Youth Mental Health to improve services, particularly for young people in their late teens and early adulthood who run into problems as they transition from youth to adult care.

“We need another voice at the cabinet table,” Turpel-Lafond said. “But we need someone that families can say: ‘This is the minister that we can meet with.’ ”

Turpel-Lafond’s report, Still Waiting, relies on interviews and surveys with hundreds of families, youth and mental-health professionals across the province. It found a common experience among youth waiting for service — sometimes as long as a year — or cycling through hospital emergency wards and back home without support.

People working in the system described the transition from youth to adult services as akin to “falling off a cliff.”

The report highlights a case in which a young person with a psychotic disorder received services in a government group home during late adolescence. Once he turned 19, he was no longer eligible to receive youth services and was escorted to a homeless shelter.

The failure to prevent or treat mental illness in adolescence or early adulthood can have lifelong consequences, Turpel-Lafond said. If left untreated by the health system, many will end up in jails or on the streets, she said.

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid acknowledged that the province has work to do to smooth the transition to adulthood and her ministry from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. “There’s already significant work between the two ministries, but clearly it’s not enough.”

She also agreed that government needs to do a better job of helping families navigate the system. “Services may be available but a family or even a family doctor may not know how to … actually navigate it.”

But MacDiarmid stopped short of promising more resources or a new ministry to deal with the issue. That decision will be made by the premier after the May 14 election, she said.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Children and Family Development is working on an action plan to deal with waiting times and transitions from youth to adult services, she said. A draft of the plan is expected after the election.

Opposition children’s critic Claire Trevena also avoided committing to a new ministry. She said an NDP government would look at the best way to fill gaps in services.

“We want to make sure that we don’t face another report like this in another few years,” she said.

lkines@timescolonist.com