Heather Williams says she’s paranoid. The mother of two in Barrie, Ont., knows a 12-year-old who has thought about suicide, and she’s concerned about the prevalence of depression in children. Even though Williams’ own children, a three-year-old and a baby, nine months, have not been diagnosed with any mental health problems, she worries that they might be one day. “It’s out there, and it scares me,” she says.
Approximately 15 percent of Canadian children suffer from some kind of mental health problem, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and ADHD. Last year, Today’s Parent conducted an online survey to gauge how aware parents are of this issue and to find out what life is like for those directly affected. Are kids getting help? Are parents getting support? What needs to change?
Williams is one of almost 4,500 parents who answered our survey. One surprising fact about these respondents: More than two-thirds do not themselves have a child with an identified mental illness. Still, many of these “unaffected” parents are nevertheless increasingly conscious of the reality of mental illness in kids. And it is a reality. In her 2010 book, We’ve Got Issues, US author Judith Warner shoots down the idea (an idea to which she once subscribed) that kids are being over-diagnosed and overmedicated, that what should be considered normal child behaviour is being pathologized. Denying mental illness in children is just another way to stigmatize it, says Warner. And, as we discovered from our survey results, stigma is still a big part of the story. Read on for more of what we learned.
Parents are thinking about mental health
More than half the parents whose children do not suffer from mental illness reported that they think about the issue “very often” or “occasionally.” Having mental illness in the immediate family is the chief reason (29%) these parents think about it, but more than a quarter said media coverage prompts their awareness.
Paediatrician and mother of four Heidi Carlson-Reid of Moncton, NB, isn’t surprised by the survey results. “A lot of parents are worried. This is what I see in my practice and amongst my friends.”
But it’s hard to find help
Almost one-quarter of parents whose children have experienced mental illness reported that they were not aware of treatment programs in their community. Only half knew of any parent support groups they could go to. And nearly half reported that they have been on a waiting list for service in the public system for one year or more.
One encouraging surprise: Our results showed that parents in BC are more aware of both treatment and support programs. Perhaps this is because, in 2003, the province created a five-year, formal children’s mental health plan that set out goals for service provision and community education. Keli Anderson, executive director of the F.O.R.C.E. Society for Kids’ Mental Health in BC, points to the importance of the plan having allocated funding for children’s mental health. “It’s about our legislature saying, ‘This is an area we need to address as a government,’” says Anderson. “It’s about governments actually saying, ‘We’ve got approximately 150,000 kids affected in our province alone. How come we’re not doing more for them?’”
Schools are critical, but falling short
Typically, it’s a parent who first recognizes that his child might have a mental health problem. But teachers are the ones sounding the alarm in about 16 percent of cases. And yet, only nine percent of parents said that school personnel were their most helpful source of support. Teachers may be on the front line with kids, but they lack the training and resources needed to support kids and families affected by mental illness. Anderson adds that without better bridging between home and school, extra training and programs will not be effective. Many parents she speaks with report having negative experiences with their children’s schools, and say their kids feel most discriminated against at school. “You can’t just work with the child,” she says. “If we’re going to do something with schools, let’s try and engage families.”
Sadly, the stigma lives on
Parents whose kids have mental illness often feel judged; more than three-quarters believe that most people see their children’s difficulties as the result of the family environment (44 percent) or a “negative personality” (32 percent). Despite increasing public awareness about children’s mental health, families do not feel that their kids’ struggles are understood as real illnesses that need and deserve to be treated. Which is why paediatrician and parent Carlson-Reid believes that we need to keep talking about the issue. “Nobody’s immune from the possibility of mental illness,” she says.
About our survey
Total number of respondents 4,494
Respondents who have a child who has experienced mental illness 21%
Respondents who do not have a child who has experienced mental illness 65%
Respondents who are unsure 14%
• Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca): Provides a link to the CMHA nearest you to access local programs and services.
• Children’s Mental Health Ontario (cmho.org): Includes a directory of children’s mental health centres across Ontario.
• eMentalHealth (eMentalHealth.ca): Provides detailed listings of local mental health resources from a growing, though still limited, number of communities across Canada.
• F.O.R.C.E. (bckidsmentalhealth.org): Parent resource group in BC offering support, information, tools, and tips.
• Kids Help Phone (kidshelpphone.ca) or call 1-800-668-6868: Toll-free, national, bilingual, phone and web counselling, referral and information service for children and youth.