Content Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
This is the second instalment of a two-part series exploring Greater Victoria’s mental health services for youth.
Suicide is among the leading causes of death – more than 25 per cent – in Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24.
It is second only to accidents and accounted for more than 500 deaths in 2019, the most recent data available from Statistics Canada.
Boys make up 41 per cent of suicide deaths for kids between the ages of 10 and 14, increasing to 70 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds, and 75 per cent of 20 to 29-year-olds.
Girls account for 72 per cent of self-harm hospitalizations for children between the ages of 10 and 19, dropping to 58 per cent for those aged 20 to 29.
For every suicide death, the federal government estimated there are five self-inflicted injury hospitalizations, 25 to 30 attempts and seven to 10 people profoundly affected by the loss.
While medical professionals cannot comment on specific cases due to privacy, this is the path a youth in crisis could take through Greater Victoria’s mental health system. These are the groups working to keep local kids alive.
When looking for help, one of the first places youth are directed is helplines. Youthspace.ca is a Victoria-based online crisis and emotional support chat where youth can text or instant message trained volunteers.
|Maria Weaver, Need2 Suicide Prevention, Education and Support (Photo submitted)|
Maria Weaver, acting executive director of Need2 Suicide Prevention, Education and Support – which operates youthspace.ca – said those volunteers cover a lot of ground in conversations that last about an hour. They offer emotional support and empathetic listening and can help address mental health concerns by connecting youth with local resources, develop a safety plan (if they have expressed suicidal thoughts or ideations), and then follow up, which is key in decreasing feelings of isolation and consequently, more consideration of self-harm.
The pandemic impact
A 2019 report from B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions estimated 84,000 B.C. children between the ages of four and 17 are experiencing mental health disorders at any given time. Between 2009 and 2017, there was an 86 per cent increase in hospitalization in B.C. for mental health issues for people under the age of 25.
That was before the pandemic.
Weaver noted youthspace.ca has seen 20 per cent more chats coming in during the past year and 15 to 20 per cent of all interactions mention the pandemic. She equates the increase to more youth with a problematic home life now being stuck in that situation, cut off from services, and perpetuating feelings of loneliness and isolation.
While not specifically for youth, the Vancouver Island Crisis Society reported a record-setting 2020-21 fiscal year with more than 40,000 crisis line calls answered, a roughly nine per cent increase from the previous year. Of the 1,613 chat and text interactions, 60 per cent supported youth under 18.
If a helpline volunteer feels a youth is in immediate danger, they can trigger emergency response from local paramedics.
|Brad Cameron, B.C. Emergency Health Services (Photo submitted)|
While B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) does not collect age-specific data, across the province it saw a three per cent increase last year in calls coded as mental health medical emergencies. Greater Victoria saw a five per cent increase during that same period with a total of 1,745 calls in 2020, or about 145 calls a month. So far this year, that monthly average hasn’t changed.
With call volumes up, paramedics are seeing an anecdotal increase in calls involving youth and it’s weighing on them.
“The number of young kids has really been a discussion … it’s blanketing everywhere,” said Brad Cameron, BCEHS superintendent of patient care delivery for Greater Victoria. He attributes the increase to the complexities of the opioid crisis paired with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Stress is an accumulative thing … That all filters down to the kids.”
With more youth requiring emergency response, Cameron said it’s also taking a toll on dispatchers and paramedics. “There’s no call that stays with a paramedic more than one involving a child … I can recall every single one.”
Once a youth in crisis has been stabilized and released from hospital, they are usually referred to a community-based program, but that’s where the system can become challenging to navigate.
|Madeleine Harber, Pacific Centre Family Services Association (Photo submitted)|
Madeleine Harber, a youth and family counsellor at the Pacific Centre Family Services Association, said there is no simple fix for systemic issues.
The Colwood-based non-profit has a waitlist just like others.
“By the time I see families, it’s usually four or five months down the road – or longer.”
COVID-19 has also impacted how some services have been delivered, meaning some families are choosing not to take part in programming. For example, Harber works with children as young as five, and a video call doesn’t always connect with someone that young as in-person session would.
However, with some families choosing to postpone services, it means others have been seen sooner.
She noted the system in Greater Victoria has challenges, especially on the West Shore with its exponential growth. Having different branches of government and non-profit organizations offering services creates a disconnect and a network that can be hard to navigate.
The key to building those structures is sustainability. Adding more psychiatrists could help address diagnosis and medication shortfalls, but it doesn’t help fix all of the shortfalls in the system.
Teaching children from a young age about mental health can help address service imbalances in the future. Vanessa White, SD62’s district principal of safe and healthy schools, said this past year has created a number of challenges for delivering that messaging, but also demonstrated the need.
|Vanessa White, Sooke School District (Photo submitted)|
While they’re seeing more mental distress than ever before, it’s not limited to students, as faculty members, parents and guardians are suffering as well. That can make it challenging to put the right supports in place.
White said it’s important to note the diagnosis rate of mental illnesses has not gone up. Differentiating between mental distress, a mental health problem and a mental illness helps reduce stigma by teaching children the proper language to use.
The Sooke School District delivers a tiered model of programming for students. The first sees universal delivery to all students, followed by the second and third tiers which offer more specialized supports depending on students’ needs – whether that’s in-school councillors and social workers or referrals to community-based service providers.
“Kids (now) are more knowledgeable, they’re more open,” White said.
Teaching kids to recognize mental distress and what it does to their bodies is also having a positive impact on some home environments. White said they’re receiving excellent feedback from parents of elementary-aged students who are working through the materials at home and are starting to recognize some behaviours that may not have been healthy.
“Have we solved everything? No. Are we working on it? Yes.”
You can find part one of this series online at goldstreamgazette.com.
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the provincial suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-suicide (1-800-784-2433), or visit crisislines.bc.ca to find local mental health and crisis resources.
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