For families like the Bowie’s, finding the right mental health care is much harder than it should be. That’s why integrated youth services matter.

In Canada, an estimated 70% of mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence, and one in five young people aged 15-24 report experiencing mental illness or substance use problems. This problem is enhanced by the fact that there remains an absence of accessible low-barrier services that meaningful engage youth, so young people don’t know where to go. Fewer than 25% of youth actually receive appropriate services.

The Bowie family experienced this firsthand. Cameron and Janice Bowie’s daughter Gabby spent 5 years waiting to get connected to services that would help her, while her parents desperately tried to manage her condition.

Gabby started self-harming when she was in grade 7, and was soon after diagnosed with anxiety and depression. As she struggled with suicidal ideation, the family spent many nights in the emergency room with Gabby in crisis.

Those early days were lonely, say her parents. Gabby was 12, and they didn’t speak to many people about her struggles and self-harming. They withdrew from their social network, not knowing how to talk about what they were going through. They just focused on trying to help her.

Between hit and miss medications, and the lack of substantial communication after emergency room visits, the family was at a loss for how to help their daughter. “We wanted our little girl to feel better but didn’t know what she needed or how to help,” says Janice.

Then Gabby was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called POTS, following the development of sleep problems. She was waitlisted for a specialist. “The sleep issue was one thing, the autoimmune disease another, but we were also referred to a mental health councillor and a psychiatrist.”

 

 

It had already been three years at this point, with Gabby now in grade 10. Her councillor referred her to other supports after admitting she was not able to help. “I wish we could have gotten help for all the concerns together in a more coordinated way,” says Janice.

The Bowie’s were eventually connected to the Youth Community Service Program at Boyle Street. They were treated together as a family, with outreach workers to support their goals, and youth-focused treatment for Gabby. But it took 4 years to receive this service.

Says Cameron, “the system is easy when you have a broken leg; with mental health it’s confusing, frustrating and hard to navigate.”

“People with depression and suicidal tendencies don’t want to die,” adds Janice. “What they want is a different way to live.”

The Bowie Family

Mounting a Collective Effort

 

Donors have a chance to help other families struggling just as the Bowie’s once did. The Mental Health Foundation, alongside Alberta Health Services, PolicyWise for Children and Families, the Graham Boeckh Foundation and CMHA Alberta, is championing an emerging model of care that is increasingly being adopted around the world to serve young people: Integrated Youth Services. Together, we have created the Alberta integrated Youth Services Initiative (AB-IYSI)

Integrated youth hubs in non-clinical settings that are welcoming, age-appropriate, and youth friendly have been shown provincially and internationally to better engage youth. Services catering to mental health, housing, employment, primary care, addiction, and education are offered by a multidisciplinary team working together in one location. Youth can walk in without an appointment and find support for their self-indicated needs.

 

The ultimate vision is a network of integrated sites across the province where young people can go to access the range of services they need and ultimately improve their mental health.

Excitingly, support in Alberta is already building.

In June 2019, service providers from across Alberta met to discuss province-wide collaboration. In July, the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation pledged $5 million dollars to aid in expanding integrated youth services throughout the province. And in early September, the AB-IYSI hired its first executive director, Pam Liversidge, to guide the project forward, with experience gained spreading integrated youth services in British Columbia.

Together, this represents momentum in the movement to ensure that our youth get the care they need, when they need it.

Several early iterations of youth hubs already exist in Camrose (Camrose Open Door) Edmonton (ACCESS Open Minds) and Fort Saskatchewan (The Bridge Wellness Hub). But we can do more.

With provincial guidance, community hubs will consistently offer core services in addition to services tailored to individual community needs. But each community needs a groundswell of support from its members to help realize the services our youth deserve. That means advocating to government for funding, and contributing to help make a hub in your community possible.

Now is the right time to move this work forward. With conversations around mental health occupying more of the public narrative, there has never been a greater moment of readiness for change. But it’s going to take a collective effort.

Youth who accessed integrated youth services in B.C. were polled and asked where else they would have gone if they had not had access to an integrated youth hub in their community. The majority of those youth polled responded: Nowhere.

Through support of the Foundation’s initiative, you can ensure that youth in the province have somewhere to go.

Learn more about Youth Hubs

Mental health problems start young.

The solutions should, too.

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