Ottawa Public Health has launched a new campaign to raise awareness about how stress could leave young children more susceptible to depression, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse in their adolescent years.

Harpreet Grewal, a program officer with Ottawa Public Health, said early signs of mental stress in young children can take the form of anxiety and manifest itself in meltdowns for children.

"We are trying to promote that children that age have mental health and children need to feel safe and secure," said Grewal, who encourages parents to develop resiliency in their children, by nurturing a sense of security and to seek help early if they see warning signs.

Harpreet Grewal

Harpreet Grewal is the Ottawa Public Health program officer in charge of the new infant and early childhood mental health campaign. (CBC News)

Grewal said the idea for the campaign came nearly two years ago after public health officials noticed some troubling mental health trends including:

  • A 75 per cent increase in mental health visits to CHEO since 2010.
  • 45 per cent of clients who use a local mental health walk-in clinic are under the age of six.
  • One in four children in Ottawa are developmentally delayed before they start school.

'I couldn't believe this was my child'

Ashley Casselman, 30, recently sought therapy for her five-year-old son Blake after she saw a steady increase in aggressive behaviour.

Mentally stressed children

Casselman sought help for her son at Crossroads, a mental health walk-in clinic, after he had a meltdown at school.

She described her son as a "sweet boy" who has trouble settling himself and often gets frustrated when he can't pronounce words properly.

"When he gets upset he will use terrible language or he will hit. It's affecting him at school and it's affecting his little brother," said Casselman. "We need help teaching him not to go from zero to 100." 

Just last week, Casselman brought Blake to the walk-in clinic of the Crossroads Children's Centre — a non-profit facility that offers services for children under 12 — after he lashed out in his senior kindergarten class, swearing at his teacher and then physically acting out by throwing chairs and toys.

The situation escalated to the point where the other children had to be ushered out of the classroom.

"I couldn't believe this was my child. That's not Blake. I know he's really struggling with something," said Casselman.

Ashley Casselman says her five-year-old son struggles with anxiety at school1:43

Rising number of young children seeking help

Blake is one of nearly 1,100 children, some as young as two years old, who have been treated for mental health issues at the Crossroads Children's Centre over the past year, according to its executive director Michael Hone.

Hone said the children receiving therapy are dealing with more than just the occasional temper tantrum.

Michael Hone, Crossroads Children's Centre

Michael Hone, the executive director of Crossroads Children's Centre, says 45 per cent of the patients who visit the mental health walk-in clinic are under the age of six. (CBC news)

Instead, they're struggling with anxiety and developmental issues involving speech and language and they may also have attention deficit and oppositional disorders. Some children have phobias about going to daycare, while others are continuously sad.

But Hone said he doesn't see the rising numbers as a sign of discouragement.

"It shows there is a movement away from the stigma attached to mental health. And that coming to a mental health centre is more acceptable now than it was historically," he said.

Hone applauded the new awareness campaign and said he hopes it will encourage parents to seek help for their struggling children earlier so the problem doesn't deepen.

"Getting to those issues early allows for the treatment to occur. Those issues are much more difficult to deal with in the adolescent years."

A therapy room at Crossroads Children's Centre

Counsellors use play therapy to encourage children to open up about their anxieties. (CBC News/ Jean Delisle)