“While we were waiting was one of the most stressful, difficult times of my life,” Toronto mom Kimberly Moran says, recalling the weeks spent waiting for her then 11-year-old daughter to receive mental health help. Initially she was told it would take around a year before her child received government-funded treatment. Ultimately help did come quicker, but only because her daughter attempted suicide.
Unfortunately Moran’s experience is hardly unique. As CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, an association dedicated to creating a high-functioning mental health treatment system for Ontario children and youth, Moran knows that lengthy wait times for government-funded mental health care are all too common for Canadian kids.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 1.2 million Canadian children and youths are affected by mental illness. Though fewer than 20 per cent of kids will get the necessary treatment, waiting lists to receive government-funded help can last for months. A 2016 report by CMHO revealed that in some parts of Ontario, it can take 18 months or longer, even though experts recommend a maximum wait time of 30 days. This experience is hardly unique to Ontario; parents across the country have reported their children waiting months to access the appropriate mental health care.
While nothing will replace proper medical treatment, there are a few steps that parents can take to make the wait a little bit less agonizing.
Focus On The Practical
A mental health diagnosis can seem overwhelming, especially when help isn’t immediately available. To make the situation more manageable, “Think about functionality,” says Moran. She recommends identifying exactly how a mental health concern is impacting a child’s day-to-day activities and from there, create specific solutions.
Moran’s daughter deals with anxiety, the most common mental health concern in children. To help her child deal with her “busy brain,” Moran and her daughter sit down and plan out everything from her school day to social interactions. “Just having a plan can help you feel less anxious,” explains Moran.
Give Your Child A Sense Of Control
While Moran believes that mental health issues should be talked about openly within the immediate family, she cautions parents about sharing too much when it comes to friends, a child’s school and their extended family. “You have to be conscious that it’s the child’s story and they have to be ready to talk about it,” she states. “Work closely with them and find out what they’re comfortable talking about.” While this can be a difficult conversation to have, it’s one that allows a child to have some control over an unpredictable situation, and that can go a long way in reducing symptom-triggering stress.
Another way to give that sense of control? “Create a network of adult friends for your kid,” says Moran, “Sometimes they won’t talk to mom or dad but they might talk to an aunt or a family friend.”
Work With Their School
“Teachers and administrators have really been learning and understanding more about mental health,” says Moran, who notes that your child’s school can be a powerful ally in making the wait a little more bearable.
While your child should dictate what specifics are shared, Moran believes that all parents should talk to their child’s teachers and find out what behaviours a child struggles with in class, so that those pain points can be better supported at home. Ultimately you want to build a partnership between the teacher and the parent, says Moran.
Also inquire about what the school can do for your child. While many schools don’t offer much in terms of mental health support, they can usually provide academic assistance and accommodations that can help to lessen a child’s symptoms. For example, a child who becomes anxious or depressed around exams may benefit from having a longer than normal timeframe to complete a test.
In Canada, children who are struggling with their mental health are usually referred to a specific agency or clinic for treatment. Moran explains that while there are no tricks for queue jumping, parents should follow up and make sure that they haven’t somehow fallen through any cracks. She also encourages parents to see what advice the clinic or agency can give you over the phone or via email.
Worried about feeling like a nag? Pick a regular date to connect with your referred-to organization and then use this contact to keep the clinic or agency up-to-date on your child’s condition, as well as see where you are on the waiting list.
Consider Mental Health Walk-In Clinics and Private Treatment
Some provinces (including Alberta, Ontario, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island) offer mental health walk-in clinics, which Moran notes can be useful as a stopgap solution. Staffed by mental health therapists, “They’re for short-term counselling and for a quick intervention,” she explains. While they won’t prescribe drugs or create long-term treatment plans, they can teach techniques that can help your child address specific challenges, for example, how to get through a school day.
She notes that while visiting these clinics won’t jump your child to the front of the line, the staff can triage patients who they believe need immediate interventions.
Another option is to pay for treatment. Moran encourages parents who have the means, or who have extended health benefits, to consider private services for a child with mild-to-moderate mental health concerns. Just be fully aware of what, exactly, any private plans cover. “It’s unfortunate that many employee benefit plans have limits so they can only get so much,” notes Moran.
Know When To Turn To The ER
“If they’re a harm to themselves or others, go,” says Moran, who wants parents to know that the ER is there, if they need it. “I trust a parent’s judgment,” she says. “If they feel that they need to take their child to the hospital, that they’re seeing things that they’re very concerned about and they can’t get help any other way, go.”
Just be aware that a trip to the ER won’t move your child up the wait list. “It’s for crisis stabilization,” says Moran. “If they’re looking for therapy and counseling, it’s not going to come from a hospital emergency room.”
Connect With Your Child
“It’s super important that you’re listening to your kids,” says Moran, who says to tell your child point blank that you’re there for her and always ready to listen.
To encourage communication, she recommends discussing your own life, including how real life situations made you feel. “You want to normalize talking about feelings,” says Moran, who adds that she’s made up “real life” scenarios in order to trigger certain conservations.
Also key is spending time together. Schedule regular “dates” where your kid picks an activity that he’s comfortable doing. Then focused on your child (so yes, put that phone away).
Moran adds that while getting treatment is wonderful, it doesn’t mean that parents can rest easy, “Even when you get help you still need to provide a tremendous amount of support to your child.”
It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 31, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada and Bell Aliant customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Instagram or Facebook, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.