1 year after surge in counselling requests, demand for this non-profit's services is unbroken

Kelsey Puddister started the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation in 2017 in honour of her brother, who died by suicide. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Kelsey Puddister started the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation in 2017 in honour of her brother, who died by suicide. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

When the Jacob Puddister Memorial Foundation opened its wait list for counselling sessions on March 1, within six short hours, 106 people used the button on the organization's website to register.

But the foundation's director, Kelsey Puddister, says the demand for therapy is not a recent phenomenon — rather, she said, it has always existed, and more of it reaches the organization since it became more widely known.

"It's so overwhelming to sit and watch 106 people apply in six hours," said Puddister.

"There's so many youth that need this and will continue to need this. We see people ranging from, 'I just want to explore what my mental health might look like if I had support' to people who are in crisis who've been waiting on provincial waiting lists for three years."

The foundation provides free rounds of counselling, at 10 sessions each, to people aged 12 to 35, with an option to reapply for more, offering more continuity than short-term mental health services such as Doorways or Bridge the gApp.

In March 2022, the foundation had to make the decision to temporarily close its wait list, after an average of four counselling requests had been coming in daily, increasing the number of people on the wait list to over 200. That, said Puddister, was the only way to keep the promise of a short wait of only eight to 12 weeks for clients.

Since then, the organization has opened the wait list periodically every three months, to control the number of people waiting for therapy.

"Three months ago, it was open for only four hours before we reached 100 people. This time, on March 1 this year, we had 106 requests for services in six hours, so the demand is steadily increasing or still very much present," said Puddister.

"I think if we were able to have our waiting list open more often that we would see even more people."

She believes that while provincial government funding for drop-in counselling services like Doorways is positive, more value needs to be placed on continuity of care.

"What I would love is for people to see the value in long-term counselling, for people to see the value in coming to a place that looks more like a living room than a clinical environment, and feeling more comfortable, and more able to be vulnerable and open up," said Puddister.

"We believe youth deserve access to mental health services when they need them, when they identify they need them. And so, anything that we can do to help support that, anything the government can do to help support that is something that we're going to go after."

So far, she said, the non-profit organization has never received core funding for its programming from the government and instead, uses money from fundraisers and corporate sponsorships to pay its therapists.

Jeremy Eaton/CBC
Jeremy Eaton/CBC

Puddister says more funding directly to youth mental health, as well as more collaboration between mental health organizations and the provincial government, is needed.

"We've seen how beneficial it can be when people access these services when they need them. And how impactful it is just, not only in this moment, but for their life moving forward," she said.

"The youth in our province deserve mental health resources when they need them. They don't deserve to wait on waiting lists for years at a time just to access services kind of too late."

The Health Department declined a request for an interview about youth mental health, referring CBC News to Eastern Health, which didn't respond.

An emailed statement from the department said wait times for regional health authority services have been improving.

"According to data from September 2019 to June 2022, wait times for children and youth in Eastern Health and Western Health have improved considerably. The number of children and youth waiting for psychiatry in Eastern Health decreased from 341 to 106 and the number of children and youth waiting for psychiatry services in Western Health decreased from 160 to 51 in that time period," the department said.

According to the department, core funding for non-profit mental health organizations is available in two ways. A grant program that supports community agencies is open only to organizations that already receive funding under it. The community addictions prevention and mental health promotion fund program is open to non-profit organizations that focus on mental health and addictions awareness and provides program funding of $200,000 in total for this fiscal year.

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