Kids need more help dealing with depression, anxiety, say child advocates

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children in Alberta and across the country, prompting advocates to call on governments to take action, in a report released Tuesday by Children First Canada.

Self-harm increasing among Alberta youth but school program makes difference

The non-profit Children First Canada is asking voters to make the well-being of children a federal election issue. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children in Alberta and across the country, prompting advocates to call on governments to take action, in a report released Tuesday by Children First Canada. 

"That's pretty startling to hear," said Sara Austin, Children First Canada CEO. 

"Kids are dying needlessly because they don't have access to the mental health supports that they need." 

The report released by the non-profit is based on a 2018 research project by the University of Calgary's O'Brien Institute of Public Health. 

The institute collected data from Statistics Canada, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), and the Canadian Institute of Child Health (CICH).

It ranks the ten greatest threats to children's well-being in Canada, and calls on voters to consider these issues in the next federal election.

Accidents and preventable injuries are at the top of the threats list, followed by suicide, depression, and anxiety. 

Child abuse, which impacts one in three Canadians under the age of 16, as well as poverty and infant mortality, rounded out the top five. 

Self-harm on the rise in Alberta

In Alberta, kids are increasingly ending up in emergency rooms after self-harming, said Barry Andres, executive director of addiction and mental health with Alberta Health Services (AHS).

"Depression and anxiety, sometimes that'll demonstrate itself in additional emergency presentations for self-harm," said Andres. 

AHS has recorded a 20 per cent increase in the number of children seeking mental health support at the community level, he added. 

"That's a good sign," Andres said.  "We really want to encourage Albertans to access help at that community level, closer to their home."

Schools are the first point of access for most children, Andres said, and a program is in place to help students understand their mental health needs. 

More than 65,000 students in 180 schools have accessed services through the school program, confirmed Alberta Health. 

Over 3,800 referrals were made to community-based services and over 900 to intensive treatment during the last two years.

'Progress isn't being made'

Investments in mental health are crucial, Austin said, but haven't been enough to reverse the trends.

"The numbers just aren't budging when it comes to teen suicide rates or the numbers of kids being bullied," said Austin. "The progress isn't being made there and we need it."

The group is pushing for a national strategy to improve health outcomes in children, as well as the creation of a commission and budget dedicated to the issue.

"We really currently have a patchwork of approaches at the provincial level," Austin said. "We really do need an overarching strategy for all of our children."

A national strategy could be beneficial, Andres said, especially when it comes to tracking health indicators across jurisdictions. 

Worst outcomes for Indigenous youths

Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

"About 80 per cent of the young people who step foot through our doors identify as Indigenous," said Christopher Weiss, community engagement manager with Edmonton's iHuman Youth Society.

The inner-city agency supports marginalized young people who are facing barriers related to mental health, homelessness, and poverty. 

Mental health resources are available through schools and the health care system, but many Indigenous youth mistrust those institutions, said Weiss. 

"For marginalized people that don't feel safe in institutions... the availability of mental health services is extremely poor."

Getting help online

Many young people who struggle with mental health issues reach out for help online instead, Weiss said.

"Smartphone use among young people is incredibly high and having access to that on your phone in a safe private way is hugely important," he said. 

The province is increasing its online services in an effort to meet young people where they are, Andres said. 

"It's hard to say in front of that curve certainly, but one of the things we've also done is established some youth advisory councils to advise and to inform us on what would be really helpful in meeting their needs."

AHS is working on a new mobile application that would allow youths to reach out for help via a one-stop-shop portal.

Kids in crisis can call 811 to access help through Health Link, or dial 1-877-303-2642 to reach Alberta's Mental Health Helpline.