As demand for child and youth mental health services rises across the province, the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba recently launched a new campaign to help Indigenous and rural communities receive crucial wellness support.
Citing the ongoing isolation and uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years, the foundation said making sure that children get proper mental health support is integral to avoid long-term mental health impacts.
For people living in Indigenous or rural communities, access to critical care is made difficult by medical transport, the foundation said. Thanks to an increase in funding, the organization was able to implement a new urgent telehealth service to support children and adolescents in rural Manitoba in getting the mental health care they need when they need it.
According to the foundation, 1.2 million children and youth across Canada experience mental health challenges — a number that grows significantly into adolescence and adulthood. With 70 per cent of mental health problems beginning during childhood and adolescence, it’s important that they’re not left untreated.
Mark Hierlihy, president and chief executive officer of Canada’s Children’s Hospital Foundations, said the importance of early intervention programs for children and youth cannot be understated.
“When we change the health of children, we change the health of Canada.”
Marion Cooper, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Manitoba division and Winnipeg branch, said the Children’s Hospital campaign is very exciting because it lets families and young people know where to look for help with mental health challenges. She called the telehealth system an innovative way to support access to mental and psychiatric health services in rural and Indigenous communities.
“A campaign like this is really about increasing the mental health literacy of our community, to understand what is available and to promote help-seeking behaviour so that people feel less isolated, less alone and less hopeless,” Cooper told the Sun. “It creates hope for people when they’re in that really tough spot of struggling and seeing their loved ones struggle and not knowing where to turn.”
In addition to research CMHA conducted during the pandemic, many young people reached out to the association to share their struggles. Not having the normalcy of school and seeing their friends, teachers and peers is something that affected many children, Cooper said.
“Often, school is a safe space for people to feel connected socially. When the pandemic hit and everything went virtual, social support systems disintegrated. That really amplifies feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety.”
In a summary of CMHA’s key findings from the fourth round of its national monitoring survey, called “Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health,” the association found that most people in Canada are worried about what will come next in the pandemic, with up to 64 per cent worried about new variants of COVID-19 and 57 per cent worried about the virus circulating in the population for years to come.
The study states that two years of pandemic-related stressors, including grief and trauma, are likely to lead to significant long-term mental health effects on the general population and on frontline mental health providers.
By the end of December 2021, the Children’s Hospital of Manitoba had completed more than 140 telehealth consults, which enabled three-quarters of patients to stay close to family and friends in their home communities. The other 25 per cent of patients were assessed by the psychiatry team in Winnipeg and then connected with local community resources that were deemed appropriate in meeting their needs.
The new campaign was funded in part by the Family of Support: Child and Youth Mental Health Initiative’s annual fundraising campaign, which is a partnership between Canada’s Children’s Hospital Foundations, Sobeys Inc., and the Sobey Foundation. Since it began in 2020, Family of Support has created 36 treatment spaces, trained more than 7,000 health-care providers and conducted over 20,000 mental health assessments.
Sandra Sanderson, senior vice-president of marketing at Sobeys, said getting kids the mental health help they need early has never been more important.
“Through the Family of Support initiative, we are bringing together our store teams, our customers and 13 children’s hospital foundations to help kids in hundreds of local communities. The impact we’ve made to date is just the beginning.”
Kim Moffat, who runs a private counselling and consulting practice out of Strathclair that specializes in agricultural and rural mental health, said the teleservices provided by the Children’s Hospital Foundation are crucial.
In her work with a local school division, Moffat said she has seen firsthand how youth — and staff members who try their best to help them — are struggling during the pandemic.
“We’ll probably continue to see, for some time in the future, kids trying to adapt to the stressors that they’ve experienced and what they’ve lived through and what their friends have lived through.”
Moffat said there has been a real gap in the development of socialization for children and youth due to the pandemic, as well as an increase in anxiety.
“I’m certainly hearing issues from parents and from youth themselves who have been struggling to cope with the challenges of COVID.”
Children and young people who live in rural or Indigenous communities aren’t exempt from this, and Moffat said they can have a harder time finding proper mental health resources and care.
“There tends to be even fewer options for mental health services. There’s fewer services … that are specific to youth issues, so fewer practitioners that are well-versed in child and adolescent mental health issues.”
She added that travel expenses can also be an obstacle if there are no services available nearby.
Another barrier is the lack of reliable mobile network service in some parts of rural Manitoba. When Moffat worked at a suicide prevention hotline, sometimes calls would be dropped due to poor cellular service.
“If you’re a youth that’s a high risk for suicide, this disadvantage can be a matter of life and death and not just of frustration.”
Connecting Indigenous youth to services they can access in their home communities is also of great importance, Moffat said.
Andrew Ferris, program director of the Children’s Miracle Network at the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, agrees. He said around 60 per cent of the children that are treated at the Children’s Hospital in Manitoba are Indigenous.
“Having this telehealth service through the Sobeys campaign allows us to bring that care closer to home. Not only is it a money thing and a geographical thing, it’s about these kids being comfortable and being able to be served in these communities.”
The cultural impact of having to leave their home communities and culture can harm children, Ferris noted. He said the telehealth services will help provide services that will honour Indigenous children thanks to an Indigenous advisory circle that was created last year.
“We want to make sure we get rid of as many of these barriers as possible. This is one step in that direction.”
To date, Family of Support has also raised more than $9 million for 13 children’s hospital foundations across Canada. Its third annual national fundraising campaign at Sobeys and Empire retail locations began on July 26.
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun