Developing mental health services for children and teens a priority

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Tyler lived in a dream world.

It was a place filled with terror, suspicion, paranoia and voices.

The voices told him of the conspiracy only he was to know about and his super powers protected him from danger. He had the ability to tell who was a friend or foe just by the colour of their eyes.

Welcome to the world of schizophrenia.

“I was so paranoid,” says *Tyler, now 19, but 17 when his episodes began. “I thought everyone with brown eyes was out to get me. My dreams were so real, so vivid, I actually thought my dreams were the real world, and the real world was a dream.”

While Tyler struggled with reality, his parents *Dave and Sonya, struggled to find answers. “There was really no help for us,” says Dave. “Frankly, we were left to our own devices. We were helpless and literally didn’t know what to do.”

Currently, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie has no specialized inpatient mental health services for children and youth. In fact, there are none available anywhere in North Simcoe Muskoka. That means these troubled kids are often referred to facilities in the Toronto area or admitted – inappropriately – to inpatient adult psychiatric units.

RVH wants to change that.

The health centre is developing plans for an inpatient unit for children and youth with outpatient and crisis support. It is a plan fully aligned with the provincial government’s mental health strategy to provide fast access to high-quality services, early identification and support for vulnerable children with unique needs.

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Tyler understood the need for services when he had a paranoid incident that required both police assistance and hospitalization on RVH’s adult inpatient mental health unit.

His father’s eyes well up with tears as he recounts having to leave his son at RVH.

“As a parent I just didn’t want to leave him there. The whole thing was scary for me,” says Dave. “It would have been so much better if there was a unit that was not so sterile and more comfortable for young people.” Although their son received excellent care, both parents agree.

The couple was successful in accessing some support through the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), however, the lack of mental health services at RVH for children and youth is the reason this family has come forward to share their story. They are passionate supporters of RVH’s plan to offer specialized inpatient mental health services for children and youth.

“The burden on families is enormous and heartbreaking so, developing a child and youth inpatient unit with complementary outpatient services is one of RVH’s highest clinical priorities,” says Dr. Roger McIntyre, mental health clinical director.  “What our young people need is seamless mental health care services – in essence we need ‘one-stop shopping.’ It is what our patients and families deserve. Severe and persistent mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, often begin in the teenage years. It is important to realize that 70 per cent of adults with a mental illness developed their symptoms as children. Providing appropriate treatments early on has been scientifically proven to have a major impact on the course of the illness.”

In Simcoe Muskoka there is a critical need for child and youth mental health services given that as many as 16,000 local youth experience a mental illness, but only one in five are receiving the help they need. Since 2007, the number of days that area children and youth have spent in the region’s hospitals suffering from mental health issues has tripled. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth in Simcoe Muskoka.

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“Substance abuse among youth in this region is also quite excessive and recent studies indicate that many youth have limited coping skills,” says Dr. McIntyre. Tyler can be counted among those statistics. As a former heavy user of marijuana, he feels his addiction may have compounded his paranoia, which eventually led him to attempt suicide.

All the while this was happening his mother’s heart was breaking. “As a mom there were days I cried every hour for him not knowing how to help. Imagine your child looking at you, the one person who he is supposed to feel utterly safe with, and seeing in his eyes fear, mistrust and pain. It was so horrible to see.”

The RVH Foundation has committed to raising funds in support of a child and youth inpatient mental health unit. And that’s good news for Tyler, and young people like him, who struggle with mental illness.

Now with medication and abstaining from marijuana, Tyler has stepped back into reality. A reality where sharing his story will help bring services to RVH for others like him.

*Not their real names