Mental-health help for youth needs radical reform, says advocate Tony Boeckh

Tony Boeckh struggled for years with the mental-health care system, trying to secure proper services and medication for his son, Graham. Unfortunately, it came too late — his son died at 22. Now Boeckh is on a mission to help better the system for today's youth.

Montreal's Douglas Hospital wins $25M prize to boost mental-illness treatment for youth in Canada

RAW: Tony Boeckh talks frankly about mental illness and the system's need for a radical transformation

7 years ago
Boeckh's son died from medical complications related to schizophrenia. Since then, he's been on a mission to reform the country's system for treating mental illness. 3:52

Tony Boeckh struggled with the mental-health care system for years while trying to get his son Graham diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia.

Watch the video for an unedited clip from CBC Montreal's interview with Tony Boeckh

The wrong diagnoses, wrong medications — the struggle was ongoing and unrelenting as he tried to help his son.

And then Graham turned 18, and no longer fit the age range for the mental-health care program he was part of at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

He died four years later, in 1986, from what Boeckh described as complications related to the medication he was taking.

Many families can relate to what Boeckh and his family went through: Only a small percentage of people — particularly youth — get the right mental-health care, by the right people, at the right time.

"They say that the best way to get treatment for a serious mental illness is either to go the emergency ward or go to prison. It’s absolutely shocking," he said.

Turn 18, find a new doctor

Boeckh said the mental-health care system hasn’t changed much in the 30 years he has been dealing with it. The problem is not merely Quebec-based, but a national problem affecting many young Canadians, he said. 

They say that the best way to get treatment for a serious mental illness is either to go the emergency ward or go to prison. It’s absolutely shocking.- Tony Boeckh, Graham Boeckh Foundation

"I think things are better, but anybody you talk to that’s in the field will admit that the system is totally dysfunctional in dealing with most young people who have mental-health problems," Boeckh said.

His family’s struggle with the health-care system started all over again when his son turned 18, at which point he was ejected from the children’s treatment centre and left to his own devices to find new care.

Fortunately, Boeckh said, he knew doctors and was able to find his son care.

"[But for] people who don’t have contacts, it’s a catastrophe. They just don’t know where to go," he said.

ACCESS meant to transform mental-health care

Last summer, Boeckh did something about it. His foundation and the Canadian Institute for Health Research partnered to give a prize worth $25 million to the winner of a contest meant to improve the system surrounding care for mental illness.

Tony Boeckh said he knew for years something was brewing in his son, Graham. It turned out he had schizophrenia. He died at the age of 22 from complications with his medication. (Courtesy of Tony Boeckh)

Dr. Ashok Malla of Montreal's Douglas Hospital was the winner, and named his new Canada-wide project ACCESS.

ACCESS consists of a national network within a larger research project called TRAM (Transformational Research in Adolescent Mental Health). Its purpose is to change the way the mental-health care system handles young people to the age of 25.

Boeckh said part of the task ACCESS faces is to create a program so comprehensive that it would sway other provinces to jump on board.

He said one of the major pillars of the program is to better integrate services and treatments. For example, a patient who has both an addiction and an eating disorder may be treated by two different people.

"Treat them all in the same place, and if they can’t, then at least have a youth-friendly place," Boeckh said.

Better integration would mean helping people more directly and quickly, said Malla, of the Douglas Hospital.

"The longer delays are clearly associated with worse outcomes. You have to intervene with the right treatment and keep engaged with the right treatment," Malla said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?