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This is the fifth in a seven week series that will examine the topic of child and youth mental health in B.C. As this is a complex and multifaceted topic, I will be narrowing my focus to a few popular beliefs and areas of concern that I have witnessed in my role as MLA. The purpose of this series is to debunk these beliefs, increase awareness of these concerns, end the stigma of mental health in our society and provide opportunities for you to impact what is happening in your community.

“A growing body of international evidence demonstrates that promotion, prevention, and early intervention initiatives show positive returns on investment.”

Popular Belief Six: The current emphasis on illness treatment is the way to go

Reality: As is common across most of the world, the current mental health system in B.C. allocates the majority of its budget and resources towards downstream, or reactive, approaches to mental health care such as  illness treatment and acute services. While these services are important for helping those already struggling with mental health problems, they do not necessarily promote mental well-being or help to combat the shockingly high rates of youth mental illness throughout the province.

If we want to foster the mental well-being of our young people and reduce the number of youth experiencing mental health challenges, or at the very least identify and address these potential challenges before they get worse, we need to shift our focus from primarily ‘downstream’ approaches, to more ‘upstream’, or proactive, approaches – namely mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention.

Upstream approaches to mental health care not only help individuals identify the early stages of potential mental health challenges, thus lessening the dependency on reactive approaches and taking the strain off our current, over-worked, health care system. But they can also help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges; something that can often deter youth from seeking the support that they need.

Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention

One of the key facets of effective mental health promotion and prevention is education. However, one of the overwhelming themes identified across all demographics is the general lack of education and public awareness around mental health; particularly among young people. Not only are many adults and young people unaware of available mental health resources and supports, they are also unaware of how to identify or address the early signs of mental illness. While school curricula incorporates units on physical and sexual health, there is often little to no mental health education provided in schools.

This lack of education also plays a strong role in the stigmatization of mental health issues. Many youth experiencing mental health problems feel shame and embarrassment over their illness and admit to not accessing services because of fear of stigmatization. This fear is not hard to understand when statistics show that 42% of Canadians are unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness and 27% say they would be fearful of being around someone who suffers from serious mental illness.

Stigma can also prove intergenerational, as parents and caregivers may not want to admit or accept that their child, or even they themselves, has an issue. In fact, studies have found that 46% of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour and only 50% of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72% who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer.

Similarly to mental health promotion and prevention, early identification and intervention play an important role in the ability of youth to overcome mental health challenges. Often, signs of mental ill-health in youth are not identified or acted upon early on. When such challenges are left untreated, or symptoms are ignored, they can escalate into more serious conditions in adolescence and adulthood making them harder to treat in the long term.

Mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention not only helps to build awareness and understanding around the topic of mental health and decrease the stigma associated with mental health issues, but research shows that investing more resources into these upstream approaches offers some of the greatest return on investment – especially when looking at children and youth programs.

Weekly Action Item

This week please consider combining aspects of the previous four action items and to use this knowledge and these advocacy skills to encourage the adoption of mental health promotion and prevention strategies in your local schools, your workplace and throughout your community. This can be done in a number of ways, below are just a few suggestions. If you have more, please share your ideas with us in the comment section.

  • You may wish to find a local organization that especially resonates with you and that is already engaging in this type of work to find out how you can help their endeavors – volunteer, donate, fundraise, etc…
  • You may want to get in touch with your child’s school to ask what initiatives or steps they are taking to improve mental health promotion and education in their school and ask how you can get involved.
  • Or you may decide to promote mental well-being in your own workplace (check out the Not Myself Today campaign which is dedicated to reducing stigma and supporting mental health at work). 

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