Comment: Preventing homelessness before it starts

I applaud Beth Sayles’ courage to speak out about her childhood tragedy and for adding her name to the growing list of advocates calling for more help for those with mental-health challenges (“Out of a horrific past comes a quest to help those with mental illness,” April 22).

The recent release of the Final Report: Child and Youth Mental Health in British Columbia — Concrete Actions for Systemic Change by the province’s Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth is a welcome sign of hope to youth in the province.

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This is one report that should not collect dust if there is any desire to prevent homelessness in the province. For many, mental-health troubles are often the precursor to homelessness — especially youth.

Finding immediate competent help for a youth with a mental-health crisis is not only frustrating but dangerous because such a crisis does not simply go away like the common cold. Mental-health issues can follow a youth through the difficult period of adolescence and sometimes set them on a course that leads to marginalization through unemployment, homelessness and anti-social behaviours.

Almost every youth at risk of becoming homeless who comes to the Threshold Housing Society for help arrives with undiagnosed mental-health issues that run the gamut on the diagnostic charts. Depression and anxiety are almost endemic, followed by differing levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, addiction issues, eating disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

As the committee’s mental-health report implies, the province has not kept pace with the complex needs of youth — especially at-risk youth.

The at-risk youth with whom housing providers and youth-care agencies deal today are complex in many ways and dramatically different from 25 years ago. Twenty-five years ago in our community there was not the pervasive use of crystal meth, ecstasy and high-potency THC — all of which have serious effects on brain development.

Twenty-five years ago, youth didn’t have ready access to the Internet and social media that create both a safe place and a trap to encourage high-risk behaviours. Twenty-five years ago, we did not know how to deal with youth who exhibited distinct symptoms of PTSD, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, ADHD, bi-polar and various levels of trauma caused by physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

In a report by Statistics Canada (Delayed Transitions of Young Adults), most youth are experiencing delayed transitioning into adulthood. Today’s typical youth take longer to achieve their independence; they are leaving school later, staying longer in their parents’ home, entering the labour market later, and postponing conjugal unions and childbearing. This delay is exacerbated for a youth in foster care, having been abandoned, living unaccompanied at an early age and suffering from mental-health issues.

A 2015 McCreary Centre study, Our Communities, our Youth: The Homeless and Street-involved Youth in B.C., showed that support in mental health was the one area that B.C. youth needed the most. The report shows that at-risk youth, unable to reach fast and immediate mental-health services, attempt to manage their mental health through drugs and alcohol. More alarming is that those youth who are either homeless or housed precariously have a high incidence of self-harm and thoughts of suicide.

All youth should be valued by their community, even those who have had difficult starting points. By not providing the mental-health services needed by so many, the province inadvertently pushes many youth into adulthood unprepared for its responsibilities. Such youth all too easily become dependent on state care.

The best time for help is not when someone has become destitute and homeless.

All of the recommendations set out in the committee’s mental health report are vital. The ones of special importance would be the following:

First, integrate services between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Children and Family Development. At the moment, the ministries work in silos with far too many youth not receiving any help. Second, require all school districts to engage in mental-health education and provide assessment as early as possible. To begin assessing a youth in high school is too late and ineffective. Last, establish the infrastructure that would allow for assessments within 30 days for youth exhibiting signs of behavourial, emotional and mental-health issues.

Whether, as the first recommendation of the report suggests, we need a new ministry to implement these recommendations, is an open question. But what does need to happen is a more robust response to addressing mental health issues in our youth so that no one is left behind, pushed aside or inadvertently channelled into homelessness.

Small interventions in pre-adolescence and early adolescence can change the course of someone’s precious life — and help them avoid homelessness.

Mark Muldoon is executive director of the Threshold Housing Society.

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