Westward Independent

Ignored and Overlooked: The Crisis of Youth Mental Health Funding

by Adrienne Richards
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It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. — Frederick Douglass

“Healthy emotional and social development in our early years lays the foundation for mental health and resilience throughout the lifespan. Yet, 70 percent of persons living with a mental illness see their symptoms begin before age 18. Mental illness affects some 1.2 million of our children and youth. By age 25, that number rises to 7.5 million (about one in five Canadians).” — Mental Health Commission of Canada

The alarming lack of resources for youth mental health and addictions on the island is a critical issue. Despite the urgent need for support, it seems those controlling the youth mental health budget have not prioritized helping children before they become adults who may struggle and become burdens on the community. The anger and sadness directed towards addicts and criminals often forget that this behaviour stems from unresolved childhood trauma. Every person struggling on the streets was once a hopeful child, and many were failed by the system meant to support them.

Youth today face multiple sources of trauma, including the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, overwhelming doomsday predictions from adults about climate change and wars, and the pervasive influence of social media.

The province’s priorities need to be more balanced. A local youth mental health center was recently denied funding for its programs, and a youth addiction program in Nanaimo was just shut down. Island Health seems focused on a new Indigenous-only youth rehab with limited capacity—20 beds, half for short-term detox and the other half for a 10-week treatment program. The province is investing $7.1 million initially, with an additional $1 million from Island Health, part of a broader $171 million investment in Indigenous-led treatment services. While this is commendable, it leaves a significant gap in services for non-Indigenous youth.

Island Health’s recent grants for youth resilience, aimed at improving mental well-being and mitigating drug-related harms, have not effectively addressed the acute mental health and addiction needs in the Valley. The recipients of these grants include organizations focused on general resilience and harm reduction, but none directly target intensive mental health or addiction treatment for youth. These include: “AVI Health & Community Services – RYHME (Resilience and Harm Reduction); Cedar Community Secondary School – Uy’shqwaluwan; Clements Centre for Families – Workplace Resilience for Supported Independent Living Program; Cowichan Tribes – Tutleen’utul for Safety; Literacy Central Vancouver Island – Trade Skills Literacy Connect; Narwell Services Society – Wellness Tools in Trades: Health Promotion Resiliency Program; Nourish Cowichan – Nourish Cowichan Food Equity Ambassador: Building Youth Resiliency through Peer-to-Peer Supports; Nuu-chah-nulth Youth Warrior Family Society – Diving for Resilience; Pacific Rim School District – hišukiš cawaak: Everything is One; Qualicum School District – Braveheart; Town of Ladysmith – YOUth Bloom

Cowichan Family Life (CFL), a longstanding provider of affordable counselling since 1985, has seen a 70% increase in clientele but has been denied multiple grants. CFL applied for a grant from Duncan after the city received up to $100,000 for its COVID-19 recovery grant program as CFL were seeing a large increase in mental health needs in the valley during this time but was turned down. CFL has approached other local governments but has been told that mental health is a provincial jurisdiction. Despite a 54% referral rate from local ministries, CFL does not receive sufficient funding from Island Health and lacks highly trained therapists for severe mental health issues that are often sent their way. Similarly, the local hospice is receiving referrals for complex grief issues, such as those resulting from suicide and overdose, outside their typical scope and without extra funding. CFL’s grant applications to local municipalities, Gaming grants and the United Way have been repeatedly denied, forcing them to consider closing and reorganizing.

United Way, with substantial assets and considerable remuneration for employees, (which holds assets of 121,718,526, (with 5,342,082 in foreign investment funds) and who, for the year ended March 31, 2024,  paid total remuneration of $10,615,920 to 106 contractors and employees) allocated funds to various community organizations in the Mid-Island area, but none directly supported youth mental health or addiction treatment. Notable recipients included hobbyist associations, spiritual centers, and agricultural societies, leaving essential services like CFL struggling.

The closure of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Valley further exacerbates the lack of resources for youth. This organization has long provided essential mentorship and support for young people, and its absence leaves a significant void in the community’s support network. From their press release: “Duncan, British Columbia – [June 26, 2024] – The Board of Directors of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the  Cowichan Valley (BBBSCV) has made the difficult decision to commence the process of dissolution and closure, after operating since 1972. The effective date is yet to be determined. It is anticipated to occur within the next few months, pending compliance with the Societies Act. BBBSCV has been coordinating with  Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada to minimize the disruption to the families and children who rely on this critical service. Like many not-for-profit organizations across Canada, and throughout the Cowichan Valley, fundraising activities are not yielding sufficient funds to meet the operating costs of the agency. In addition, BBBSCV  has been dependent on grants provided by the government and private granting organizations; these grants have become fewer and much harder to achieve. Without strong, stable alternative revenue streams to  support core programming, this leaves the agency not being able to meet the demands of increasing  operating costs (staff wages, rent, insurance, etc.).”

Island Health’s Discovery program, which offers counselling for youth with addiction, has only one counsellor for the mid-Island area, who is currently on leave with no replacement 

One woman told us her daughter was suffering from severe mental health issues and when she brought her to the Cowichan District Hospital she was told point-blank, “You will not get the help you need here as there is not a child psychologist and you must drive her to Victoria”. 

No inpatient youth rehabs exist on the island, (besides the new Orca Centre) making it difficult for low-income families to access far-away facilities on the mainland, which have long waitlists.

Critics argue that B.C.’s 2023 budget for mental health and addictions lacks transparency and fails to address key issues, particularly for youth. The $ 1 billion investment favours treatment over harm reduction. Nicole Luongo from the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition points out that the budget does little to address the toxic drug crisis and creates a hierarchical system with user fees for some treatment beds. Despite promises of enhanced prevention and intervention services for children, there is skepticism about their implementation and success measurement, given the investment accounts for only 190 new treatment beds which look to be for adults only at this point. Critics, including B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon, called for more transparency and accountability, questioning where these funds are truly being distributed amid the decline in youth services.

The system is broken, and it would seem investing in our youth to a much greater extent would be one tool to help slow down the current growing crises we see on the streets and in the community.

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