Steven Cook of Hamilton knows mental illness is a tough hill to climb.
He spent his youth struggling with bipolar disorder and borderline schizophrenia. From a young age, he was bullied at school.
His teen years included drugs, suicidal thoughts and a misdiagnosis of depression. His scariest moment involved a tense stand-off with his family as he held a knife to his own throat.
At 18, he was properly diagnosed and got the help he needed. Since then, life has gotten better.
“I own my own house,” said Cook, now 26. “I have boarders paying my mortgage and I’m dating my neighbour. Life is good.”
Cook’s history is not unique. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates as many as 20 per cent of Canadian youth have a mental illness or disorder. About 5 per cent of boys and 12 per cent of girls aged 12 to 19 have had a major depressive disorder.
In the 12 to 19 age group, 3.2 million are at risk for developing depression, CMHA says. Suicide is the leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year-old Canadians, second only to auto accidents.
And each year, 4,000 Canadians die by suicide.
This doesn’t surprise Jennifer McTaggart, a psychologist who works at the Child and Youth Mental Health Program at McMaster Children’s Hospital.
“Anecdotally, there are more youth presenting to the emergency room,” she said. “I don’t know if the rates are increasing, but people are getting diagnosed more.”
The most common issues McTaggart sees are depression and anxiety. September and October are the busiest months. Everyone is heading back to school.
While McTaggart describes Hamilton as “one of the better funded regions out there,” waiting lists are common in local mental health care.
The waiting list to see a social worker at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Hamilton is about five months. Youth wait about that long for residential treatment beds at Lynwood Charlton Centre, which provides mental health services for youth and their families. They wait for as long as a school year for the organization’s day treatment classrooms.
The wait times are “not ideal,” but it’s the best services can do with their limited resources, said Camille Quenneville, director of policy and communications at Children’s Mental Health Ontario.
It means from the time families ask for help to the time youth are treated, the situation has often worsened, she said.
“They go in to be served and if it’s not in a deep end situation, they may go on a wait list,” Quenneville said. “But by the time they get the service they need, they may be a lot worse.”
The issue, she said, is often money. Youth mental health has, for whatever reason, suffered long periods of political and financial neglect.
Lynwood Charlton’s base funding hasn’t increased for years, executive director Alex Thomson said.
The province unveiled a new 10-year mental health plan last year called Open Minds, Healthy Minds. That meant 10 new staff for Lynwood Charlton — five to work in schools and five in the community.
But there was no new money to administratively support those workers, Thomson said. Even gas mileage for them to travel around Hamilton equals $36,000 per year, which Lynwood Charlton takes from other areas of its strained budget.
To balance the budget, “you cut back on your training budgets. You cut back on your admin support,” Thomson said. “You try to get lean and mean.”
Jean Clinton is a McMaster psychiatrist and longtime consultant of children’s mental health programs. She also sits on the child and youth committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which recently released a national “mental health blueprint.”
From a funding perspective, mental health has been “the orphan of the health care system,” Clinton said. And youth mental health is “the orphan of the orphan.”
While the province’s 10-year strategy is long awaited and much needed, “right now, we do not have enough money to support all the programs that are currently in place,” Clinton said.
But there is reason for hope. With its new strategies, governments are paying more attention to youth mental health. There isn’t enough money devoted to it, but “the intent is very good,” Clinton said.
The issue has been pushed to the forefront this year, bringing focus to a long-obscured crisis. This month, for example, British Columbia teen Amanda Todd committed suicide after posting a YouTube video with a series of handwritten signs describing her torment.
While tragic, the story’s visibility may help, Cook said.
“I’m very happy that she put it on YouTube so that others could see,” he said. “That’s such a graphic way to show people what it can cause. It’s just really sad that she had to kill herself to do it.”
Locally, Saltfleet District High School suffered a series of student deaths this year. Two boys fell from the Jolley Cut in what police have ruled a joint suicide. In February, 16-year-old Emily Jerome also died by suicide. She was awaiting an appointment with Contact Hamilton, which links youth with mental health services, when she died.
These incidents, painful as they are, may promote understanding of youth mental health, said Jill Dennison, Hamilton co-ordinator for the Talking About Mental Illness program.
This is true as long as the stories are respectful, and written “with knowledge and compassion.”
“When people realize that mental illness is just like any other illness, it truly reduces the stigma,” Dennison said. “It reduces that fear factor and increases people’s knowledge.”
If talking helps, 2012 is a year of change.
“I can’t recall a time when this has been more in the news and more top of mind with the people we need to get to,” Quenneville said.
“Having said that, it remains to be seen how knowledgeable the average parent is about mental health and their kids.”