What would you do to keep your child alive? What would you do to ensure that your child gets an education?
These are the two questions that parents with children and youth who have mental health disabilities struggle with every day. The reality of mental health issues for young people is that managing life and school is a daily challenge, only varying in degree of severity. And yet, it is not the disability that is the most disempowering and crippling aspect of life.
It is the attitudes of others that work to undermine the very efforts of individuals and families to feel accepted, understood, respected, cared about and heard so that their needs could be better met. Making the invisible visible to others is the role of the parent who must quickly learn the advocacy skills required to negotiate so that her child will be able to participate as an active member of society. Dealing with isolation and judgment from others due to their discomfort and ignorance compounds the difficulties in addressing a young person’s needs.
Some Facts about Youth Mental Health
- The leading cause of death for young people is suicide
- One in five young people has at least one mental health disorder
- Only one in five children and youth are receiving treatment for their mental health disabilities
- Five students in every class of 30 have mental health issues
- Only 6 percent of the healthcare budget is spent on mental health
- The human cost of mental health is huge; lost lives, lost productivity in the workforce, lost educational potential
Inequity in Healthcare and Education
The differences in treatment between physical and mental illness are huge. When our children with mental health disabilities are not managing or are having a mental health crisis, our cries for help are often met with silence. The demand is so huge and the services so few that wait lists of over one year exist for all mental health organizations and services. The programs that exist are usually only short-term with no follow-up services provided. Families are advised to seek help privately. Many families turn to private therapists for individual counseling rather than wait for more than a year. Rates for most psychologists average $200 an hour. Any child in crisis on a wait list or without support for their illness is tragic.
The inequities in the education system for students with invisible disabilities as opposed to visible disabilities is striking. The wait list for a psycho-educational assessment can take years. However, without an assessment a student is not designated “exceptional” and requiring special accommodations and supports through an Individual Education Plan(IEP). As a result, most families pay privately for an assessment that averages about $3000. This assessment is critical to opening the door to educational supports.
We, as parents of children and youth with mental health disabilities, want the same access to healthcare and education that your children without these challenges have. We want timely, effective medical supports and services. We want a well-coordinated support network that works with us to support our young people. We want the education system to be advocates and champions of our children to ensure that our children get the educational accommodations and supports to which they are entitled. We want the healthcare and education system to value our experience as people with lived experience of mental health.
Blame and judgment have no place in the education or healthcare system. Focusing on the parent with attitudes based on misogyny, stereotypes and ignorance negates the very real needs of the child and works to disrespect and discriminate against the family.
For the parents, there is always the suggestion that something in their parenting approach and style have contributed to the disabilities so, parenting programs are often offered. However basic parenting principles do not work for a child with mental health challenges, often working to aggravate the child and the situation. Learning how, when and where to communicate with a child in a crisis requires time, trial and error, reflection, patience and support.
Ways Forward in Understanding and Dealing with Mental Health
Invisible, non-evident disabilities are very visible to us. We live with them every day. Let us help guide you in your understanding of what works for our children. Let us be the voice for our children. Listen and act on our suggestions and recommendations for existing issues and challenges. See us as vital partners in the healthcare and educational team that supports young people’s growth and potential.
Keep the focus on the young person and their right to an education, to a life and to a future. Find ways to effectively engage the family in proactive and innovative solutions that serve the needs of the young person.
All young people need caring people in their lives. You can make a difference with your words, actions and attitudes. Our children and their families deserve compassion, respect and inclusion. Our children need innovators and mental health heroes who will explore creative and flexible ways of accommodating mental health disabilities. Focus your strategies on the individual needs, interests and motivators of the person who struggles with severe and crippling disabilities.
Mental health disabilities are real disabilities. They are severe and debilitating, interfering with all aspects of life. The sheer numbers of young people suffering from a mental health challenge indicates that we, as a society, must respond and act to support children and youth.
We need a concerted effort from all members of society, all levels of government and all members of the educational and healthcare systems to work together. We need action and funding that demonstrates society’s commitment to the life, education, health and wellness and future of our young people. Mental and physical health need to be valued equally.
Stigma, ignorance and discrimination shame us all. Let’s find ways to encourage the participation of all young people in a kinder, more compassionate and respectful Canada. We can all do our part in making a difference in young people’s lives by taking action on youth mental health, walking the walk on suicide prevention strategies and supporting our efforts to increase educational and healthcare supports and services.