With funding freeze, mental health pros turn to innovation

Mental health agencies serving children and young people say innovation will be the key to dealing with a big increase in the number of families in need of care.

CHEO reports sharp increase in requests for services despite decade-long provincial funding freeze

Teens are often overlooked during the holidays because it's assumed to be a happy time of year, "but not everyone is as fortunate as the kids we see in the commercials," according to Ben Leikin of Ottawa Public Health. (Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock)

Mental health agencies serving children and young people say innovation will be the key to dealing with a big increase in the number of families in need of care.

"This is a public health issue," said Dr. Kathleen Pajer, chief psychiatrist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

CHEO's chief psychiatrist, Dr. Kathleen Pajer, says the hospital has seen about a 70 per cent increase in need for mental health services in the last year. (CBC)

"We are trying to care for the next generation — people who are going to make our society," said Pajer. "If we do not help them learn to cope better, number one, and also learn to live healthier lifestyles, we are looking at a possible dramatic effect on the next generation of Ontarians."

While research is only now beginning examine reasons behind the year-over-year increases in the need for mental health care for children and young people, an increase in awareness and a decrease in stigma may be a big driver, according to Ottawa Public Health.

"We don't necessarily have an epidemic of illness," said Ben Leikin, who supervises mental health programs for OPH. "We have an epidemic of reaching out for help." 

Time of year tough on some kids

This time of year in particular can be tough on young people, according to Leikin. 

"We often overlook youth this time of year," said Leikin, adding that the holidays are often thought of as a happy time for kids. "But not everyone is as fortunate as the kids we see in the commercials."

Ben Leikin, supervisor of mental health programming at Ottawa Public Health, says the system is trying to innovate to respond to the increase in demand for mental health services. (CBC)

Since 2009, CHEO has seen a 77 per cent jump in the number of young people needing mental health services, according to Pajer. Additional numbers will soon be released in CHEO's year-end update.

At the same time the hospital has not received substantially more funding to add clinicians and other resources to meet that need, she said.

And so CHEO, public health and other service providers have had to innovate with a number of projects aimed at linking up professional services.

Wait times drop with new program

CHEO joined forces with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre to tackle wait times to meet with professionals, which had reached 200 days at CHEO and a year and a half at the Royal.

By 2017, the wait times at both dropped to four-and-a-half weeks by introducing a new approach triaging patients, leveraging all professionals available, and increasing group therapy classes.

OPH has also helped link up services between the Youth Services Bureau, CHEO and other counselling services, to meet the growing demand. 

Services when and where kids need it

But Fae Johnstone, a mental health advocate for transgender youth, said while improvements have begun, barriers continue to keep young people away from the services they need.

"Services don't tend to meet you where you're at when you need them," said the Johnstone, 22, who struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide. 

"I hear more stories about young folks who weren't supported to the extent that they needed to be than I do about young folks who had a smooth journey and I think that paints a really unfortunate picture," she said.

Trans youth advocate Fae Johnstone says young people need help connecting with mental health services where and when they need them. (Sept 2017, International Association for Youth Mental Health Conference)

At the same time, she said teachers and parents — while they are the main advocates for children and their welfare — have few supports to understand the issues before a mental health crisis arises. 

More funding needed

"So the need is skyrocketing and we need supports in place to address that," said Johnstone.

However, she said the Ministry of Children and Youth Services has not increased funding for mental health services to meet the demand. 

In fact, provincial funding to CHEO for mental health services have been frozen for about a decade. With inflation, CHEO confirms it has resulted in a reduction in funding during the same period it has experienced unprecedented demand. 

OPH said a request for provincial funding to boost city-supported mental health programs was rejected last year.

Genevieve Oger, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, said in an email to CBC News that "improving outcomes is a top priority for the Ministry." 

She acknowledged "service demand" has increased, and that the ministry is consulting to develop a new funding model to support  "community-based" services. 

"The funding model will allow us to invest funding to support the delivery of a flexible range of core services and better meet the needs of children and youth in the community," Oger said in her statement. 


  • A previous version of this article stated CHEO had seen a 69 per cent increase in the number of young people needing mental health services in one year. In an email to CBC News on Jan. 5, their spokesperson explained the hospital had relayed incorrect data. The actual number was 77 per cent over nine years.
    Jan 05, 2018 10:15 AM ET