‘Constantly crashing’: Families hit hard by wait times for mental-health care

Research shows that 28,000 youth under 18 are waiting as long as two and a half years for mental-health and addictions services. That’s taking a toll on young people and families across Ontario
By Karen Black - Published on Jul 13, 2020
A 2020 report from Children’s Mental Health Ontario finds that programs to treat children with serious mental-health issues do not exist in many rural, remote, and northern communities. (iStock/SDI Productions)



Brian and Jessi White of Sarnia have been waiting 21 months for the intensive mental-health treatment that’s been recommended for their 16-year-old daughter. They live every hour of every day on edge, wondering whether this is the moment their daughter is going to harm herself — or worse. After a recent episode, Brian bought a safe in which to lock up the family medications. They already had a locked tool box for the kitchen cutlery. “The whole family is in upheaval all the time,” says Brian, a Sarnia city councillor.

This is what waiting for mental-health services in Ontario looks like. The Whites’ daughter is just one of the 28,000 kids waiting to get the mental-health treatment they need.

According to a 2020 report from Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 28,000 kids under 18 are waiting as long as two and a half years for mental-health and addictions services in Ontario. Called Kids Can’t Wait, the report says that these wait times are understated because programs to treat children with the most serious mental-health issues do not exist in many rural, remote, and northern communities. “And the need for support is only expected to increase as a result of COVID-19,” says CMHO spokesperson Kathleen Powderley.

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A spokesperson for Ontario’s health minister, Christine Elliott, told TVO.org via email that Roadmap to Wellness: A Plan to Build Ontario’s Mental Health and Addictions System, launched in early March “will dramatically improve the mental health care Ontario’s youth receive and will reduce wait times for critical services.” They added that “core provincially-funded mental health and addictions services will be made available over time to Ontarians, regardless of where they live, including in northern Ontario.”

The Whites’ daughter has severe difficulty regulating her emotions; specialists at the Child and Parent Resource Institute and the Parkwood Institute at St. Joseph’s Health Care Centre in London say she needs dialectical behaviour therapy — a modification of standard cognitive behavioural therapy with a strong focus on acceptance and mindfulness — on a daily basis in a residential treatment program.

So they are waiting for a bed to become available at Anago, a child and youth mental-health service provider in London. Since they got on the waiting list in September 2018, their daughter has been in and out of hospital for suicide attempts a number of times, including one attempt on Mother’s Day 2019 and several more since then. The Whites don’t know how much longer they will have to wait.

Jessi White, a schoolteacher in Sarnia, has suffered concussions multiple times when her daughter became violent. The Whites’ 11-year-old son has developed PTSD as a result of the ongoing turmoil. The Whites say the waiting is heartbreaking. “We are constantly crashing,” says Brian.

Jessi has just returned from a three-month stay at Homewood Health Centre, in Guelph, to treat an eating disorder that Brian says was brought on by their daughter’s suicide attempt in May 2019:  “Basically, since the one suicide attempt over a year ago, on Mother’s Day weekend, Jessi’s health was in decline. The depression set in pretty hard last summer, and, by January and February this year, we almost lost her. This is what the system leaves families with.”

Tesa and Alvin Fiddler of Thunder Bay waited eight months for their 14-year-old son, Jayce, to see a social worker at the Children’s Centre there. His self-harming had been escalating. He has both a developmental disability and mental-health needs. Fiddler says they had been told repeatedly that there were no local services to help Jayce. They decided to try again because they were increasingly alarmed by his self-harming.

During that eight-month wait, Jayce’s mental health deteriorated — he had violent outbursts, and the household was under full safety measures all the time, says Tesa Fiddler, a schoolteacher. “Anything that could potentially be used for harm had to be put away.”

Tesa Fiddler says the environment in the home had such an impact on their daughter, who was 10 at the time, that they then had to seek services for her as well. “People don’t really see that part of it,” says Fiddler. “They see the intense need of the child who is in crisis, but the crisis has a ripple effect on the family.”

The Children’s Centre said that Jayce needed intensive care, the kind of treatment available only in a long-term residential treatment program. But that type of program is not available in northern Ontario. “There isn’t even a waiting list to get on,” says Fiddler.

The only option the Fiddlers had was to send their son to southern Ontario. “And we just said this is not an option for us,” says Fiddler. “This child with all his complex needs didn’t need that other layer of being removed from the only home he had ever known and sent away to a facility that might be able to provide the care that he needed.”

Instead, the Fiddlers worked with the Children’s Centre to figure out an alternative: Jayce was allowed to stay for two years at the short-term residential facility, which normally accommodates youth for up to three months. “That way, he was home every weekend, and we got to see him every day,” says Fiddler.

Victoria Corbett, a 22-year-old student at Durham College in Oshawa, is waiting to see a psychiatrist who can finally give her a formal diagnosis for the mental-health struggles she’s been experiencing most of her life. As she’s over 18, she can no longer access services in the youth mental-health system and so has to navigate an adult system with little assistance and more waiting lists.

The Kids Can’t Wait report says that the waiting-list issue is compounded by the age cap of 18 for child and youth mental-health services. Once youth turn 18, they have to access services in the adult mental-health and addictions system and face more waiting lists. The report recommends that the age for accessing youth services be increased from 18 to 25.

According to the Ministry of Health spokesperson, the Road to Wellness plan includes enhancing mental-health services at the 10 youth wellness hubs currently operating in Ontario that serve as “one-stop shops” for youth aged 12 to 25.

As a youth accessing services in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Corbett says, she was told she had traits of borderline personality disorder: “Accessing services for therapy for that is really hard because I don’t really have anywhere to start.” Corbett has developed coping skills that she practises every day just to keep functioning. She says it’s important for her to get up every day, get to her job and, in between, do life’s little things — like taking care of her skin and playing soccer.

But she says she needs more than coping skills to help her. She has accessed mental-health services on Durham College’s campus: at first, she says, she was told that her case was too severe and that student-counselling services are only for mild to moderate cases. In the end, she was allocated eight counselling sessions. During the last one, her counsellor told her she needed an intensive treatment, such as EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing), a therapy used to treat trauma.

“But I don’t know how to access that,” she says. “It just puts me back down at the bottom of the ladder because I don’t know where to go for this.”

Corbett has just completed her first year in the two-year program to become a 911 dispatcher and plans to defer her final year until fall of 2021 because of COVID-19. But she will definitely return, she says, because “I really like helping people in crisis, because I know how it is to feel trapped — and you just need that voice to help you.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated Victoria Corbett's first name. TVO.org regrets the error.

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