Provincial short-changing leaves Peel youth waiting 737 days for mental health supports, waitlist ballooned 133% in 4 years

On Thursday, a pair of reports went before regional councillors detailing the disturbing state of Peel’s mental health sector, particularly as it relates to services available for youth.

The documents detail: how over 40 percent of young people in Peel say they are not getting the mental health support they desperately need; how Peel’s Children’s Aid Society has indicated that approximately 94 percent of children within its care have complex needs and that suicidal ideation has increased since the pandemic; how kids are waiting over two years for access to a counsellor or therapist, in some cases “aging out” of the system before it can even begin to support them; how provincial underfunding continues to hamper any ability to help kids who desperately need it; and how only one-third of people in Peel will get the mental health support they require.

When it came time for councillors to discuss the reports, ask questions, put forward motions to demand the Province address this crisis, or at the very least, express concern about a system that is leaving so many young people to suffer alone, all 25 elected officials remained silent.

This lack of attention to Peel’s mental health crisis explains how three years can pass after councillors heard a similar cry for help from service providers in June 2020, and yet, despite repeated mentions of the Region’s advocacy work to the Province to fix the issue, nothing has changed.

A big part of the blame does fall to the Ontario government. Successive governments have allowed Peel’s funding formula to lag far behind its population growth, leading to a dearth of services to assist with growing demand and help with people’s increasingly complex needs.

In 2020, Peel’s average per capita funding for child and youth mental health services was $76.38, this is approximately half the average per capita funding in Ontario ($152.48)

This is particularly scary in a young region, where 70 percent of mental health problems have their onset in childhood or early adolescence, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Peel Region is home to 12 percent of the province’s children under the age of 19, with a fast growing population that is projected to continue increasing rapidly over the next two decades. There are currently 1,650 youth on a list waiting for “core services” including 1,279 waiting for counselling and therapy. This is a 133 percent increase since 2020, when the list included 550 children/youth waiting for counselling services.

The growing list of those waiting for service is easy to understand considering the Mississauga Halton LHIN currently has one mental health bed per 78,500 people, while Brampton and the Central West LHIN have one per 66,808 people. By comparison, in Toronto Centre, one of the top-funded areas for these sectors, there is one mental health bed for every 3,500 people, meaning the two cities have about 5 percent of the mental health capacity compared to central Toronto. Mississauga and Brampton also make do with about 7 percent of the psychiatric resources compared to other parts of the province, leaving those looking to get help for their mental health or addiction problems from a professional, with very few places to turn.

While updated funding numbers for mental health from the Region of Peel are not included in the reports, it’s hard to see how things would change much from 2020. A report from Peel Public Health that went before council in October described a $9.5 million budget shortfall. This is mainly due to underfunding from the province. In many other municipalities, the funding provided equates to a 70:30 split (with the province covering 70 percent of the cost of services with the municipality making up the difference). In Peel, the ratio is closer to 60:40 the report explains.

Peel Public Health has one of the lowest funding amounts per capita in Ontario.

“For cost-shared programs, in Peel, Public Health was funded by the Province at approximately $34 per capita in 2022, while Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa received $49, $49, and $39 per capita respectively. Provincial funding has also not kept pace with Peel’s population growth or inflationary costs,” the report states.

The impacts of the COVID pandemic on youth mental health has been well documented.

A 2021 European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry study found that “many children and adolescents in Canada experienced deterioration across several mental health domains” during the period of time when COVID-19 emergency measures were in place, with more than two thirds of children and adolescents having gone through a deterioration in their mental health which was “strongly associated with stress related to social isolation.”

Youth were already struggling with social isolation, but the pandemic heightened the issue when schools shut down and the support systems that were available did too. In 2021, students in grades 7 to 12 in the province had “significant decreases in their self-rated mental health, ability to cope with difficult problems, and met need for mental health support,” the report states. Without adequate funding, roughly 60,000 children and youth in Peel are “unsupported, with many further disengaging due to poor transitions between youth and adult services.” The impacts are especially felt among children from racialized backgrounds and those who belong to lower socio-economic statuses.

It is currently “unknown” if the mental health of students in Peel has stabilized, improved or worsened following the pandemic, with the Region citing a lag in data collection and analysis. The most recent CAMH study (the organization collects and analyzes data on mental and physical health and drug use of students in grades 7-12 every two years) was conducted in 2023 and its results are expected in April 2024.

While there is still over two months before the data is released, the Region states that anecdotal evidence points to an increased demand for mental health support among children and youth in Peel.

“Mental health indicators such as psychological distress, elevated levels of stress, and suicidal ideation have worsened over time among Ontario youth,” it states, Coping skills and physical activity among youth are low, revealing the challenges for youth at the individual level to maintain their wellbeing, but at a community level there has been a significant decrease in “indicators of student social support networks such as feeling close to people at school,” the data reveals.

Another of the reports that went before council Thursday detailed how only 1 in 3 residents in Peel were able to access necessary services, meaning tens of thousands of children and youth are left without support. The Region has been working on getting schools, child and youth mental health providers and other stakeholders to streamline the transitions between schools and community-based providers.

Children and youth targeted mental health and addictions supports and interventions often require ongoing, continued care which can range from targeted prevention services, counselling and therapy, to “intensive and specialized services, that rely on professional contributions from a multitude of sectors,” the Region states. There is a need for a “comprehensive systems approach and coordination” to adequately address children and youth mental health, as well as integration across schools, community-based organizations, various levels of government and others.

But according to the Region, the lack of coordination from school to community services has led to 60 percent of youth attempting to make the transition “disengaging” from care.

“Underfunding has impacted Peel’s child and youth mental health sector in meeting community needs, necessitating ongoing advocacy for improved funding and legislative reform to create a more integrated and responsive system,” the report states.

While councillors have no control over the provincial purse strings, they are capable of making decisions with the Region’s budget, which amounts to $5.9 billion for 2024.

For example, while both councillors and the leadership of the Peel Regional Police have spoken about the need to address the mental health crisis, there were no questions or suggestions of reducing the police budget when it was discussed in late 2023, or shifting the unprecedented number of new officers approved for 2024 in order to free up money to invest into mental health supports.

This is despite the fact that along with Region of Peel staffers and community service providers, Peel Regional Police representatives joined a roundtable discussion with Mental Health and Addictions Minister Michael Tibollo in November where the direct connection was made between a failing mental health support system and police.

“Youth needs can become more acute and complex while they wait for much needed care, making it more challenging for service providers when they eventually see their client,” a regional summary of the discussion states. “All of these factors increase the risk of individuals potentially interacting with law enforcement or having to access the emergency department for urgent mental health care instead of receiving the right care at the right time in the right setting.”

During the roundtable, Peel staff stressed to Tibollo the dire need for equitable funding for Peel.

Email: hafsa.ahmed@thepointer.com

Twitter: @_hafsaahmed

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Hafsa Ahmed, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer