Kids' mental health care services are being overrun — and COVID hasn't helped

People who work in the field of mental health care for children say more investments are needed to keep kids out of hospitals like CHEO. (Shutterstock - image credit)
People who work in the field of mental health care for children say more investments are needed to keep kids out of hospitals like CHEO. (Shutterstock - image credit)

Mental health services continue to be overrun in the Ottawa area at both the hospital and community clinic level, and according to those on the front lines, it's not just a COVID-19 problem.

As of Friday, the inpatient units at CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital, were at 100 per cent capacity, according to director of mental health David Murphy.

"If you had asked me two weeks ago —  if you had asked me six years ago ... this would have been the same situation," Murphy said.

"It's no longer a surge and it hasn't been a surge for quite some time. It has been our reality for many years."

Even so, COVID-19 has led to an increase in eating disorders, Murphy said, while also exacerbating symptoms in children with such disorders who may have been getting better pre-pandemic.

He said investments in areas like psychotherapy, counselling, family therapy and crisis services would go a long way to reducing the strain CHEO has been living under for years.

"We simply need to build more capacity in the community so kids don't end up in our emergency services," he said. "We need to ensure that children [and] youth that are experiencing a crisis have an alternative than going to an already strained emergency department."

Félix Desroches/CBC
Félix Desroches/CBC

Community services also seeing high numbers 

Those working at the community level agree the pandemic did nothing to reduce the wave of children with mental health disorders.

"It's a bit of a perfect storm," said Monica Armstrong, director of mental health for the Youth Services Bureau.

"We were not a super robust system to start off with. And then we have increase in demand, and then we have young people [whose problems have] higher complexity."

While for some kids the return to a more normal life — restrictions have eased over the past 12 months — has helped, many are still struggling, Armstrong said. Her staff continue to deal with kids facing anxiety and depression after several years of unpredictability and loss, she said.

The organization's 24/7 crisis line is handling a much larger proportion of suicide calls, Armstrong added, rising from about 12 per cent in 2018-2019 to roughly 28 per cent.

"We're going to see the impact of that for years to come, I think," she said.

The mental health care field is also dealing with the same staffing pressures being felt across the health-care sector, Armstrong said, agreeing with Murphy that increased funding and capacity in the system are both needed.

New initiatives

Mental health organizations are coming up with ways to alleviate the strain, Armstrong said, citing the Youth Services Bureau's own crisis phone and chat line and its walk-in clinic, where kids and families can come for just one visit or be connected with other services if needed.

Similar initiatives are underway at Crossroads Children's Mental Health Centre, which is also dealing with a backlog of young patients.

Crossroads has had success with the Counselling Connect program, which provides quick access to phone and video counselling with more than 100 practitioners from more than 20 agencies. The counsellors have diverse backgrounds and speak several languages, said associate director Natasha McBrearty.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

"I think what happened with the pandemic is it really caused us to, you know, go into problem solving mode and see how we could get services out to folks as quickly as possible," said McBrearty.

"The option to have quick access, even if it's just for a brief counselling intervention, is really helpful for most families. And then from that point, we're able to help navigate those other families who might need more to something more intensive."