An estimated 1.6 million children and youth struggle with mental health disorders in Canada, with alarmingly long waits for treatment—sometimes up to 2.5 years—reveals a new report.
The report released Thursday by Children’s Healthcare Canada and the Conference Board of Canada, “Nurturing Minds for Secure Futures,” shows that the most common reasons that children and youth need access to mental healthcare services and support are anxiety and depression.
Response and support by families, healthcare, and community-based health services for children and youth with anxiety and/or depression cost Canada $4 billion a year.
The $4 billion price tag is primarily towards $3.5 billion for publicly funded systems like healthcare, mental healthcare, and substance abuse and addiction.
If Canada invests in mental healthcare services and supports to reduce the prevalence rate of anxiety and depression disorders to pre-pandemic levels, the costs would decrease from $4 billion to $1.5 billion per year, claims the research.
“There are very real financial costs to the system itself, but also to families,” Emily Gruenwoldt, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare Canada, told the Globe and Mail.
Without timely investments, the lifetime cost of just one cohort of children with the onset of anxiety and/or depression at the age of 10 is close to $1 trillion, according to the research.
The researchers argue that investments in children’s mental health today, focusing on accessible and inclusive programming for vulnerable populations, could save $28 billion annually.
“We’re certainly seeing a growing number of children and youth that are suffering,” said Gruenwoldt.
The report underscores the sharp decline in the number of young people reporting good mental health over the past 20 years, a situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2003, 76% of people aged 15-30 reported having excellent or very good mental health. By 2019, that rate had dropped to 60%.
“More recently, these rates have worsened, in part related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the vast social change experienced by children and youth during their important developmental years,” said the research.
In 2020, 23% of hospitalizations among Canadian children and youth aged 5-24 were for a mental health disorder. Since the pandemic, admissions for eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety, and substance abuse have doubled in Canada.
The findings reference evidence from Ontario, showing 28,000 children and youth waited an average of 67 days for counselling and therapy and 92 days for intensive treatment in 2020. The 28,000 young people are double the amount from 2017. In some cases, wait times for intensive treatment stretched to 2.5 years.
However, the report shows that the issue is compounded even further by the estimated 200,000 Ontario children with serious mental health issues without access to service. Treatment programs are non-existent in many rural, remote, and Northern communities.
Nurturing Minds for Secure Futures makes four key recommendations.
The report recommends developing a pan-Canadian child health strategy with a focus on mental healthcare, investing in evidence-based mental healthcare programs tailored for children, especially vulnerable groups. It also stresses the need to enhance the skills of mental health professionals specializing in child and youth care. It calls for creating a national data strategy to track and improve child and youth mental health outcomes across Canada.
The study’s findings point to a profound need for a systematic overhaul of Canada’s current mental health care approach. It emphasizes the importance of early identification and timely intervention in preventing more severe mental health disorders from persisting into adulthood.