Hamilton·In Depth

Kids, Poverty and Mental Health: Building community solutions

Hamilton has a goal of making the city the best place to raise a child. Achieving that means not only helping individuals, but also finding community solutions to children's mental health. The McQuesten neighbourhood has had some success building a supportive community.

Part 5 of 5: How community support can help alleviate the mental health stresses of poverty

Liz Upper moved to the McQuesten neighbourhood seven years ago and took advantage of the many supports and services. Now she volunteers to make sure those services are there for others. (Denise Davy)

Elizabeth Upper loads a bag of food into her grocery cart at the McQuesten food bank. Living on social assistance with seven people to feed makes coming here a necessity.

“I’d never be able to get by,” says Upper, whose five children range in age from six to 17.

A child who lives in poverty is three times more likely to have a mental health problem. Reporter Denise Davy investigates why this happens and what’s being done. Davy’s research was supported with a journalism fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
PART ONE - Why kids in poverty are at higher risk of developing mental health problems
PART TWO - How Hamilton schools are helping students in lower income neighbourhoods
PART THREE - Anxiety: Why so many children in poverty struggle with anxiety
PART FOUR - Children of war: Healing immigrant and refugee children
PART FIVE - Making Hamilton a better place to raise a child

Her children’s mental and physical health problems make for a long list: epilepsy, hearing problems, asthma, cataracts. Plus they all have learning disabilities. She’s also dealing with her own health issue - eczema so extreme she has to wear two set of gloves.

“If I get near water at all they turn bright red,” she says, tugging on an oversized plastic glove that covers a cotton one.

Upper is only 36 but there’s a weariness about her that makes her seem like someone much older, someone worn down by poverty. She covers her mouth when she talks, self conscious of her decayed teeth which she can’t afford to have fixed.

Sense of community

She pulls a bunch of bracelets out of her grocery bag. She’s thinking of selling them for $2 each. Extra bus money to get her kids to appointments.

“I try to keep myself busy,” she says, as she braids a bracelet attached to her cart.

Live Chat Friday at noonJoin series author Denise Davy and Dr. Jean Clinton, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Offord Centre for Child Studies for a live chat with CBC Hamilton

McQuesten neighbourhood is home to the highest child poverty rate in the city. Fully 75 per cent of children under the age of six are poor. But residents will tell you it’s also a place that has a sense of community and that, despite the poverty, is a good place to raise children.

That didn’t happen overnight.

It’s been all about focusing on the assets and looking at the gifts people have rather than looking at what they need.- David Darbyshire, community developer for Wesley Urban Ministries

“Eleven years ago nobody wanted to move to McQuesten because it was a scary place to go,” says David Darbyshire, community developer for Wesley Urban Ministries who works closely with McQuesten residents.

“That’s all changed.”

Since the Hamilton Community Foundation hired a community development worker 11 years ago, they have been working closely with neighbours to mobilize the strengths and skills of residents here.

Building on positives

There is still poverty here but if you walk around the streets, there’s also an energy and sense of pride in the surroundings. You’ll see lots going on — an Ontario Early Years Centre, McQuesten Boys and Girls Club, a Muslim basketball association, licensed childcare programs, free universal pre-school for three-year-olds, walk-in clinics and  breakfast clubs.

The annual BBQ’s and street parties regularly draw more than 800 people and, says Darbyshire, are a great way to build community.

Casey Eaton, community organizer David Darbyshire and Pat Reid in a playground area in a subsidized townhouse complex in McQuesten neighbourhood. (Denise Davy)

“It’s been all about focusing on the assets and looking at the gifts people have rather than looking at what they need,” says Darbyshire, who grew up in McQuesten.

“It fits with that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

It’s been seven years since Upper moved to McQuesten, which is bordered by Red Hill Valley, Queenston, Parkdale and the railroad tracks between Barton and Burlington streets. She is so grateful for the numerous services she and her kids use that she volunteers to give a little bit back.

A McMaster University study showed that children living in poverty are three times more likely to develop mental health problems. Part of that is a result of poverty-related stressors, while part is due to difficulties low income families can have accessing services.

Doing something right

Judging by Early Development Instrument (EDI) data, which measures how well children are doing when they enter school, the folks at McQuesten must be doing something right to counter some of those negative impacts.

The EDI average vulnerability rate (how many children are lagging behind) among children living in inner and lower city neighbourhoods in Hamilton is 33.6 per cent. In McQuesten, it’s 29 per cent.

Darbyshire says that the four per cent lower rate is a direct result of the work that’s been done.


The Early Development Instrument (EDI) was the first tool designed to measure a child’s overall health development and readiness for school. The idea originated in 1997 with the late Dr. Fraser Mustard, who championed programs to support children in their early years. It was developed at the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University and was introduced in Hamilton schools in 2002.

The EDI is not meant to be an individual screening tool but rather a tool to measure the school readiness of children in various neighbourhoods.

EDI data is used as a planning tool by school boards, the city of Hamilton and the Offord Centre for Child Studies to determine where services are needed.

Because it is considered a legal document, CBC Hamilton had to receive special approval from all stakeholders for its use in this series. This is the first time it has been shared publicly. 

“This was a concerted effort to help neighbours find their voice, exercise their choice and gain access to additional resources to help them make their neighbourhood a better place to live, work and raise a family,” says Darbyshire.

EDI data has been collected on Hamilton kindergarten students since 2002 and has consistently shown disturbing differences between low and high income areas. The data is important because it’s a measure of what a child’s life has been like before they enter school and can also be a predictor of how they’ll do later.

It speaks to the impact poverty can have on a child’s mental health. While vulnerability rates are as low as five per cent in higher income areas, like Flamborough and west Hamilton, in lower income areas like the North End, Beasley and Keith, it can be as high as 50 per cent in certain developmental domains.

In a city like Hamilton where one in four children live in poverty, it’s critical to find a formula where children in poor areas can be buffered from the affects of poverty.

Darbyshire said the success formula McQuesten uses is to build on community strengths. That’s also meant making concrete changes to the environment. For example, lighting was improved in the Martha Street townhouse complex and a new playground was built where a rundown area referred to as the “litter box,” used to be.

Pat Reid, past Chair of the McQuesten Community Planning Team and long-time resident, proudly points to the mural across from the playground that was painted seven years ago which remains graffiti free today.

“It’s about making friends with your neighbours,” said Reid.

Darbyshire agrees.

Building relationships 

“When I was a kid here, everyone knew each other on the street. It was OK to play on the street because neighbours looked out for you. What we’ve been able to do over the past 11 years is to get back to that,” says Darbyshire.

McQuesten also has the most stable population of any low income neighbourhood in the city. That’s a huge asset when it comes to buffering children from the negative impacts of poverty because it means residents can build long-lasting relationships, which are important for children.

Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, said creating an environment that’s the best place to raise a child is also about helping parents.

“Kids live in poverty because their parent or parents live in poverty. Many work one or several minimum wage jobs, others can't find work or are prevented from working due to a disability,” said Cooper.

“Children sense the stress of a parent unable to afford the rent or food or unable to find a job. That's why moving kids and their parents out of poverty is so critical, why we need to invest in families.”

Hamilton’s EDI rate of 26 per cent is the same as the national rate, however, it still means one in four children is lagging behind. Hamilton may be able to take lessons from Revelstoke, B.C. where they dropped their EDI rate from 19 per cent to six per cent in only six years.

Model town 

The town of 8,000 people is now considered a leading model for early childhood development programs. Anne Cooper, associate superintendent for the Board of Education in Revelstoke was a driving force behind setting up the town’s early years development project and believes their program could be emulated in any city.

They started by bringing together the key people who were in decision-making roles at various agencies and took a well-rounded approach that involved agencies providing more services.

Where to go for help:

Contact Hamilton - 905-570-8888

COAST (Crisis Outreach and Support Team) — 905-972-8338

Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (family support) — 905-777-9921

Alternatives for Youth (substance abuse issues) — 905-527-4469

Canadian Mental Health Association (Hamilton) — 905-521-0090

Woodview Mental Health and Autism Services - 905-689-4727

They also encouraged businesses to be more family-friendly and developed a Children’s Charter which outlines their mission statement for making every child healthy.

Now, says Cooper, if there’s even one child in town who isn’t doing well, they know her by name.

Many agree that building a village of supports for children who live in poverty is the most effective way to buffer them from developing mental health problems. David Hoy, director of social work for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, believes while we’re on our way to making that happen, politicians need to get on board with making mental health a priority, especially where children in poverty are concerned.

“There’ll never be an election in this province where they don’t talk about education and health yet they never talk about children’s mental health. This is astounding to me. They talk about crime, services, gun control and a number of other stuff yet they never talk about children’s mental health,” said Hoy.

“We need the commitment and the will to stay the course, that this isn’t just going to be a one-time commitment. We need to hold their feet to the fire. That’s what it’s going to take to turn this thing around because the next government could come in and shut it all down.”

The Early Development Instrument (EDI) was the first tool designed to measure a child’s overall health development and readiness for school. Because it is considered a legal document, CBC Hamilton had to receive special approval from all stakeholders for its use in this series. CBC Hamilton is revealing Hamilton's EDI data for the first time.

The map below shows results for percentages of children showing vulnerabilities in any one of the five EDI domains, broken down by census tract. The data in the grey areas is "shielded" because the numbers of children studied is so small individuals might be able to be identified. This shows how localized the data can be and how it can be used to help determine where services are needed.


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