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Guest Editorial: Making Mental Health a Lifelong Investment

By Gordon Floyd
Network, Winter 2007

Mental health, just like physical health, is a lifelong concern. We now recognize that even pre-natal events can make a permanent mark on mental health, such as when a pregnant woman’s drinking produces a fetal alcohol effect. Informed and attentive parents now measure healthy child development against social, emotional and behavioural benchmarks, as well as physical ones.

Still, our society has a lingering, wistful notion of childhood as a time of carefree happiness, where significant mental health concerns don’t exist, where bad moods pass quickly, and where bad behaviour can always be tamed with some firm discipline. Unfortunately, the truth is not so pretty.

About one in five children in Ontario has a diagnosable mental health disorder that causes moderate to severe impairment — and two-thirds of those children have more than one disorder. These proportions are similar to those for adults; children are no more immune from the stress of modern life than are their parents or grandparents.

The good news is that most mental health problems in children are very responsive to treatment, both because they are at an early stage and because a child’s brain development is still underway. Of course, every success in treating a child’s mental health problem not only has lifelong benefits for that individual, but also reduces the need for ongoing services from our overburdened and under-resourced adult mental health system.

In the past 10-15 years there have been important advances in our knowledge about “what works” in the child and youth mental health field specifically and in the mental health field more broadly. It is now well-documented that most mental health problems first appear before the age of 20 — for some conditions the average age of onset is as low as 12 — and that the prognosis for recovery is best when treatment is provided early. Yet most mental health problems in children are still not even being identified. According to the Ontario Child Health Study, five of every six children who need specialized help for mental health problems are not getting any. And those who seek help in Ontario face an average wait time of 5.5 months, longer than for any of the conditions that are being addressed by current wait time strategies.

Thankfully, the Government of Ontario has recently signalled its intention to get serious about our children’s mental health. With the release of a first-ever policy framework for child and youth mental health in November 2006, the stage has been set for new programs and partnerships that can identify problems earlier, intervene sooner, and ensure that resources in the community, schools, and the medical system are coordinated more effectively.

Of course, the promise of this new policy framework will only be realized if it is supported with new investments to ensure that children and families across Ontario have access to specialized help when they need it, but even the economic rationale for those new investments is clear and compelling. Governments already pay a high price for untreated children’s mental health problems in the form of child welfare costs, youth justice costs, special education costs, and the many costs associated with chronic mental illness.

Years of neglecting our children’s mental health has resulted in tragic personal consequences for families throughout Ontario, has created unmanageable pressures in our adult mental health system, and has caused many other government costs to rise. The lifelong linkages are clear. Now our challenge, and our opportunity, is to invest in earlier intervention so that those linkages will result in better mental health and mental health services at every stage of life.

Gordon Floyd is executive director and CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario.


» Return to Network, Winter 2007 – Contents