Youth reaching for mental health care find a 'big gap' in delivery

Young people and their families across Canada have called out for quick access to mental health services in the moment they are needed.

'The need is high,' doctor says, but youth often fail to obtain immediate help

Teen mental health gaps

6 years ago
Duration 1:58
Ways to expand suicide prevention for young Canadians amid high need

Young people and their families across Canada are calling out for quick access to mental health services in the moment they are needed.

Teens across the country often talk about how difficult it is to navigate the health-care system for services when they're feeling distressed, said Dr. Joanna Henderson, a clinician scientist and director of the McCain Centre at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

The hospital invites young people and their families to engage in planning services and research based on their needs, Henderson said.

"The need is high. We have many young people who are experiencing distress, who are very stressed, who are feeling like they are having trouble coping," Henderson said in an interview Wednesday.

"I think the big gap in our service delivery is around access, it's being able to get the services you need when you need them, where you need them."

Students who spoke at a rally in Woodstock, Ont., yesterday, following suicides of five young people in the city of 37,000 this year, are among those calling for change.

Henderson said common suggestions include:

  • Increasing the use of technology to deliver services, such as texting instead of calling to book appointments and to reach counsellors immediately.
  • Delivering mental health services announcements at school, on YouTube and other social media as well as through traditional advertisements on bus shelters.
  • Continuing to target stigma.

"As a system of professionals we can think about what might work or what has shown to work through research, but unless we have youth and families at the table we can miss the mark in terms of understanding what their needs are," Henderson said.

Walk-in clinics for youth opening

On Wednesday, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health showcased the first of three new walk in-clinics for youth mental health in Toronto.

David O'Brien oversees the "what's up" walk-in clinics across Toronto and is an employee of East Metro Youth Services. CAMH is partnering with the the group to provide young people with quick access to psychiatric services, peer support, and more intensive counselling without wait times in a place they feel comfortable.

The goal is to provide a one-stop shop for young people to obtain services and address them immediately instead of snowballing, O'Brien said.

Family doctors, local children's mental health agencies, schools and the Kids Help Phone website can also assist young people who want immediate help, Henderson said. 

Mandy Basserman in Hamilton said her brother Adam Lloyd reached out for help many times before he killed himself last summer in Riverview, N.B., at the age of 30. The family's obituary spoke openly about his depression that started in his teens.

"He told the receptionist that he was suicidal," Basserman recalled Wednesday. "Basically told, we can see you in three weeks. That's not good enough."

Her brother expressed concerns about not being able to find someone to talk to on weekends at the hospital. 

"It was so easy to make him laugh," the family said in obituary. "Maybe that's why we all find this so hard to understand."

The obituary notice ends with a message to those struggling: "Please know you matter. Call someone. Text someone. Anyone. Reach out. You are not alone. You are loved."

Canada continues to be the only developed country without a suicide prevention strategy with concerted funds, goals and commitment to reducing the rates of suicide, said Tana Nash, executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Internationally, psychiatrists say proven elements of national suicide prevention strategies include reducing access to means of suicide and training for GPs and professionals at schools and workplaces to recognize at-risk behaviour. 

Where to get help

Kids Help Phone – 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat (online chat counselling) - visit

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy