The Current State and Future Vision for Youth Mental Health Services

Wilson, Tatum.Headshot

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Dec 19, 2022

 A few months into his tenure, on the heels of many years working in the ecosystem — Tatum Wilson has no illusions about the urgency of the task ahead.

“The idea of having to wait nine months, let alone two and a half years for our son to get access to care is just incredibly traumatizing for me,” says Wilson, CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario.

He is referring to the current reality. It’s one Wilson has come to view in a different light — as the father of a three-year-old. — cognizant that a parent may never know when or if they will need to access these critical services for their child.

Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today has spent more than 20 years working in social services and health in Ontario. Many of his roles have focused on children and youth. Tatum Wilson is the current CEO of Children’s Mental Health, Ontario. He’s also a father of one. And he joins us today from Toronto. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

So it’s really interesting Tatum that a cornerstone of your entire career journey really has been focused on children and youth with a specific lens around social justice and equity. Could you take us through how that has become such a theme in your career journey?

Absolutely. Some of it I’m, you know, from way from the beginning, I’m the child of public servants, my dad worked for the WSIB for his whole career, and my mom was a is a now a retired principal. And so kind of public service and being engaged in the world and trying to sort of make things better has always been part of my DNA. And then, you know, after university, I’ve always known that I had wanted to go, I have a degree in political science and wanted to work in government and in policy specifically, and so it has just gone from there. And I started working in the ministry of health was my first job in the in the Ontario Public Service. And just from there, it sort of builds, right, you sort of see, you get a sense of the challenges, as well as the opportunities. And just with each sort of passing job that I was able to move into in my career, it has always had this sort of bent and focus on on Social Policy and Social Justice, and then kind of by accident has ended up also having this focus on children and youth. So it’s just, it’s, it’s always been an interest of mine. I also think, you know, candidly, as a, as a person of color, and as someone from the LGBT community, you know, in my own life, there’s been elements of social change and social progress that have been personally important. And it has both informed the kind of work that I do, and also the, the understanding that I have of it, as well as some of the challenges. And it’s just been a continuum through the through my career and in its in its in its development. And I’ve been very fortunate as well, to be able to have the opportunity to tie these things together my own interests and my work. And it just, you know, not that I tried to get out of it, but I just seem to keep landing in these places that involve this kind of work. So it’s a bit personal, and then it’s a bit sort of my interests. And then now my experience.

So certainly a multi layered perspective, indeed. And in the spring of 2022, you were named the CEO CMOH, why were you interested in this position, and at this particular time that we find ourselves in in the world with everything going around going on around youth and mental health?
Well, I mean, you you just said it, right there, there is no question that, you know, for a long time, obviously, children and youth mental health is an important issue. One that for many years, whether it’s because of stigma or government funding, hasn’t frankly, gotten the kind of attention that it warrants. And the while the stigma sort of discussion has been changing a lot over the, I’d say the last 10 to 15 years. The real the pandemic really sort of shone a light, unfortunately, on the realities and the experiences of children and youth through the pandemic, who, in many ways we could say from a health perspective, but also from a social perspective, and specifically a mental health have borne the brunt of the pandemic, whether it’s school closures, isolation, just confusion and fear, however, you want to call it that children have have faced pretty unique challenges over the last the last couple of years. And so when this opportunity presented itself as to become the CEO of CMH, oh, it really just felt like for me personally, it was the culmination of a lot of the work that I’ve done. I’ve like, like we’ve talked about, I’ve worked in health policy, I worked on the Poverty Reduction Strategy. I’ve worked in child welfare. And, you know, these things. My observations have been worked in these sectors a lot of the time as these are not distinct children, right, you know, children in child welfare, or children living in families on low income or children with mental health challenges that many of these kids if you were to draw out a Venn diagram, you know, the, the part that overlaps is, would be quite would be the largest part of that diagram. So it just felt like in many ways, it was it was a way to build on a lot of the experiences that I’ve had, but also to bring to it some of my own personal interests. I am a new dad. I have a three year old son, as we’ve said, and that also added to it a personal interest in terms of wanting to improve the system. Should he ever should he ever need it need to take advantage of it. I also just in my own personal background, so I’m But what has driven me to this work is my my father had a brother and a sister, who have both since passed away, but who had schizophrenia, and their lives were very, very challenging, you know, street involved at times homelessness and a number of challenges in that regard. And I couldn’t help but notice, and in my conversations with my family that had they had access to the kind of services that we’re trying to advocate for now at CMH. Oh, their lives would have been significantly better. And notwithstanding the fact that closer to the end of their lives, they, they did through luck, or through planning, they did get access to caseworkers, who really helped them improve their lives and allow them to thrive in a way that was meaningful for them. But I always couldn’t help but think, again, hearing stories that my dad would tell that, you know, both of these things were their onset, were when they were in their youth, and should we have should they have had access to the kind of services that we’re advocating for hear their lives would have been much better. And so for me, personally, that is a little bit from a personal perspective, what has driven some of my passion about this? And, and the time is right, right, that to kind of make these kinds of changes. And, you know, I can say, for sure that to a person, when I would tell them that I was moving into this job. Everyone has sort of disclosed, oh, well, you know, I’m actually worried about my son, or I’m worried about my daughter, or we’ve seen the challenges. And so it really feels like it is it is a very timely kind of thing for a lot of a lot of parents of kids of all ages, and also just those who genuinely care about our kids and their well being. So just felt like the right time. And, and, and there’s a lot of work to do, unfortunately.

There is certainly timely but also daunting. And I wonder Tatum in a long list of challenges, as you mentioned, how do you go about prioritizing what needs attention first, as the numbers continue to increase? And it’s interesting, because with the number of people working in this sector, you would think that maybe we’re making some kind of advances, but it would appear and certainly, as you pointed out, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. So I wonder, how do you go about prioritizing and what is your biggest challenge currently?

Right? Well, I mean, it is one of those where to begin kind of questions, I would say, you know, even if we just start with the numbers, so pre pandemic cmhr did a survey of our members, we represent about 85, of Ontario’s publicly funded child and youth mental health agencies. And together, they represent about 95% of the funding that goes out for child and youth mental health. So we’ve got quite a scope of the province. And in a survey done for wait times and access, pre pandemic, in the worst case scenario is a 2.5. year wait. So we just sit with that for a second two and a half years to wait to get access to services. And often that’s even in the case, particularly for those who are in the most need of intensive treatment. So that’s a worst case scenario, the average across the province is about a nine month wait. So again, we’re speaking back to why I do this job, the idea of having to wait nine months, let alone two and a half years for our son to get access to care is just incredibly traumatizing for me. And on top of that the waitlist in terms of numbers was 28,000 kids on the waitlist. So if I was to have to pick a priority access is the biggest priority, I would say right now because kids are waiting far too long. And this is not a condition such that, you know, you have a diagnosis. And then if you just wait to get service, and when you get it, then you fix it. These things, they get worse, they become more acute, they have impact on families, they have impact on on schools, and you know, in school success. So the longer you have to wait, the harder it is. So from an access from a prioritizing perspective, I would say that access is the is the number one priority for us. And, you know, we can get into all the different ways in which you might improve that. But that is the biggest challenge. And then it’s coupled with, you know, again, things that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. So, you know, we know that demand has increased, there are more kids who are facing challenges from a mental health perspective. In terms of specifics, we know that eating disorders have gone up. During the pandemic, we know that the number of kids with anxiety and depression have gone up. And again, those numbers were pre pandemic 28,000 kids waiting on a waitlist up to possibly two and a half years. And with demand increasing during the pandemic. Those Those have just have just gotten worse.

So let me ask you for moms, dads, guardians, parents watching or listening to this interview, listening to those statistics already potentially feeling helpless because they potentially have a child in their household that needs mental health care. What advice would you give them as a starting point to have their child addressed by the appropriate expert?

Yeah. Well, I mean, I I think that ideally, if people have a primary care provider, I certainly have no hesitation to go and engage with that provider, many of them will provide. And as part of their practice, if they’re on a team of interdisciplinary providers, which means, you know, not just physicians, but nurse practitioners or social workers or other people who provide different types of care within that, within that model, they may have access to early interventions or brief interventions, which could, you know, address the problem early on. And what I would say is, just at the outset, don’t hesitate, right. Like, if you’re sensing something about your child, then just ask about it. There’s no harm in asking a family doctor might be able to identify a couple of early things or just different changes in whether it’s about your parenting or about the settings that you’re in or supports that they can provide. They could they could do that. So certainly, that’s one piece of advice is to ask early and, and have no sort of fears about doing that, that the family doctors, for example, are open to those kinds of questions. Should you get to the point where you know that it’s a more acute issue that you need to deal with? You know, there are there locally, throughout the province, we have child and youth mental health agencies who are able to provide care, many of them are trying to do work, either as an individual agency or with groups of agencies, where they will provide kind of a one number with that you can call and do like a quick assessment. And they can give you a sense of where you might have points of access for care, the type of provider that you’re looking for, if a child and youth mental health agency as the right one for you, and with those kind of one call one door, metaphorically speaking, ways of accessing care, you you can hopefully, at least get into have an early enrollee session and and identify what some of the challenges are. We do also, at CMH, oh, on our on our website, children’s mental health, there is a list of our providers, and you can enter into that the kind of challenges that you’re seeing what you might think you might need, and it will provide the name of a provider who might be able to help you out. And then you can you can get access in that way. I would say unfortunately, the reality is as if some of our members are not able to provide immediate care because of some of the access challenges that we were already talking about earlier. And so I would always recommend, you know, should you find yourself in a situation where it is feeling very acute, or certainly if anyone is at risk, then you can go to, to the to the hospital, you can go to the emergency room, and, you know, a lot of people I find are unsure Is that appropriate. Now, from a from a quality perspective, from an outcome perspective, from a cost perspective, the emergency room is not actually the right place to go. But it is a place to go, if you are in urgent need of of that type of care and that type of intervention. And again, I want to make sure it’s clear, I don’t say it’s not the right place to go, because you shouldn’t be doing that. But from an effectiveness perspective, it costs much more hospital care is more expensive than community based care, you will end up in sort of a system that was already sort of overstressed. And as we’re hearing now in the news, the children’s health sector. So So again, from a from a principals perspective, it’s not the right place to go. But certainly if a parent is feeling like they’re in need, absolutely it is, it is appropriate to go and seek out that care there.

Now, you talked about your website, and you know, the CMA, CMA, Joe says it wants to create, and it’s marked on your website, quote, a place where kids and young people with mental health needs thrive. Certainly a bold statement of bold vision, what would you say is foundational to making this happen?

Well, I mean, I think it really is about setting up a system that treats kids, we use sort of a tagline like at the right time and in the right place, and with the right care. And so what we need to have is a system of care that allows children to access the right kind of care that they need, and at the right time. So in some cases, it is just your family doctor, and they have the knowledge to be able to address the issue and at the at the outset, which then really, I mean, I was thinking about mental mental health and mental illness is sort of getting there when you can, right. So if it’s a, if it’s a mild to moderate case, a couple of sessions with your family doctor, or a social worker might be all that you need. And then you can move on and thrive. Inevitably, there will always be kids who have more complex or more complicated challenges, and they need to have access to the right kind of care as well. And that can be still through the community, we do provide intensive treatment. Our members also provide in some cases, even live in treatment, if a child is not able to get the kind of care and support that they need in their family, like in their home, they can get out of home treatment, which is where you are in a residential setting where you can get that kind of care. And then again, in the most acute perspectives, they might need to go to the hospital. But again, to the to the original question about what would allow them to thrive is having a system of care that is able to support kids at whatever point they are at and meet them where their needs are. You know, one of the things we’ve heard a lot about during the pandemic is is again through schools and the impact of school closures, and there’s a very valid and real perspective that providing care for kids, or at least access to interventions in the school system is a logical place to do it. I could not agree more. And I would welcome any kind of investments in mental health and particularly Child Youth Mental Health anywhere. However, again, when you’re talking about the question of How can kids thrive, the system needs to be responsive to the kind of care that kids need. And right now, the government has rightfully made investments into child and youth mental health. And they’ve made some significant investments into the providing these access to mental health workers in the school system, which again, makes perfect sense. However, when the system is of care is not set up to properly help kids thrive, what ends up happening now is a bit of a perverse incentive. And that’s in a couple of ways. One is, school based mental health workers are there to often identify the needs of a child. So you might then get a diagnosis, you can do an assessment there, they are not properly set up to deal with the intensive treatment that some of those kids will inevitably need. And so one of the, you know, the double edged sword of making more assessments available is you also then understand what the need is. And unfortunately, some of those kids who might get an assessment and then a diagnosis of some more intense or severe need in the school system, if they get that identification there, they end up going to the back of the list to get care in the community center, right, because they need the care. It’s not something that can be provided not because people aren’t trying, but just because it’s not the setup, they can’t get the care that they need in the school system. So then they end up needing to go into the community. And when they go on that long wait lists, which we’ve already talked about in the community, they end up waiting for more for Carol longer there. So again, my point is we welcome all investments into the child and youth mental health sector. But it’s got to be done in a way that that elicits the right sort of type of behaviors and outcomes and actions that need to be taken. So a balance of investing in the school system where assessment and even dealing with mild to moderate cases can be done. But it needs to be complemented by supports in the community so that those kids whose needs aren’t necessarily met in the in the school system have a place to go, that is the next step that is not just Well, I can’t get care in the community. And again, as I’ve already talked about, then you end up having to go in the hospital. And arguably, the whole point is that this is not good economically either. Because if kids can get care in the community, it is a lower cost treatment option than if they have to go to the hospital. So again, you want to set up a system of care that meets the needs of the kids where they’re at. One of the other challenges. And again, this is all speaking to the focus on the question of how to kids thrive and how to make sure that the system is set up for them is mental health workers often in the school system are paid. There’s a big wage disparity between the wages in the school system versus in the community. And so one of the you talked about one of the one of the challenges that we’re facing, and we are facing, we hear about this Health Human Resources challenge HHR across the system, as a result of the pandemic as a result of historical underfunding. And there are specific HHR challenges within community based mental health, one of them being that when you fund for positions in the school system that are paid better than those who work in the community sector, we are facing a significant loss of staff into the school system right now. So again, my point being, you need to look at the whole system of care and individual investments, they make sense in the moment, but they need to be done in a thoughtful and comprehensive way such that it doesn’t create the kind of incentives that we don’t want to see, right, we need people staffed in the community sector, we need people staffed in the education sector, but you can’t have a system set up where you’re drawing one from to the other, leaving longer weightless and larger numbers of vacancies on the frontline in the community sector. So again, the idea is funding and creating a system that provides a whole system of care that is funded appropriately and in the right places to drive the right kind of interventions that you can have for kids.

Lots to unpack in what you just delineated there Tatum, but I’d like to start with the idea of, you know, the sense of urgency, right? So you talked about, in many cases, families, you know, that clock is ticking, and they may not get the help they need with their primary care provider, etc, etc. So as you look out on it with your with your sort of perspective, where you are, what you’ve done and how you’ve gotten here. What What can you say about the timing of this in terms of how long is it going to potentially take to create that and make that vision a reality, the one that is described on your website, and certainly what you’ve outlined for us.

right? I mean, certainly it’s not overnight, right? Like the the systems are, there’s a lot of moving people are moving pieces, there are a lot of it’s it’s people that are involved. We’re not We’re not making machines or cars or something like that. And so it takes time and thoughtfulness and planning. That being said, I mean leading up to the election and even currently now our advocacy is is focused on appropriate investments into the into the system, and what we do know What we’ve articulated by working with our members is that if we invest, I mean, our overall ask is about $140 million annualized money put into the system over over the course of a number of years, with a goal of bringing our waitlist down to a maximum of 30 days, which is about the appropriate time. I mean, I know that too apparent. And I can speak to this personally, any day seems like too long, maybe day more than one day, but 30 days is kind of a clinically accepted window in which if you can get access to care, then you can get to the challenge earlier. And in terms of timing, I mean, I think, you know, with those investments, we could ramp up fairly quickly, it would involve recruitment, we know that HHR is a challenge, like I’ve said, so would involve the steps of recruiting more staff to do it, it would involve some system changes, such that we are making sure that we have sort of the appropriate regional distribution of availability of services, you know, Toronto is a very different experience than then being in the north in terms of access, whether its distance to travel, number of staff, and workers, expertise, local community challenges that might be causing, you know, some of these mental health issues for the children. But so that will be something that we need to work on is the appropriate distribution of these resources. But, you know, if I could wave a magic wand and get all the money that we need right away, I would say, you know, I don’t want to put a clock on it. But it wouldn’t be too long before we could have in place a system that was much more able to meet the needs of kids. And again, the other thing that I have talked about the education system, you know, there’s a great deal of interest. I mean, everyone has the kids interests in mind, right. So if we could work on partnerships, for example, between school boards, and our community mental health providers, where there is a care pathway that is, is known for, you know, you know, always from the perspective of a child in their family that if you know, a child gets a diagnosis, that there is a warm handoff to the community sector, that they can then provide the kind of care that they need in there. So these are all the kinds of organizational and structural changes that we would need. But I think we got the money that we needed to do it and got the funding in the investment, it wouldn’t be too long before we could put in place a system that would at least significantly decrease the amount of wait time that we have. And then we can focus on setting up the system in a way, whether it’s through integration or more collaboration that would allow kids to thrive as we want to see.

Certainly integral to having this conversation about certainly mental health, and specifically Youth Mental Health, is the whole idea of root causes. And how did we get here? It’s, you know, widely known to be a global epidemic, as we talked about exacerbated by the pandemic, when you talk about key contributors to kids and youth mental health challenges, according to research in this province, what can you tell us about that?

Well, I mean, the I would say, first of all it is mental health challenges are mental illnesses has been with us always. And there are, I think one of the things that have led to our current situation is actually the result of a good thing. We are breaking down stigma around talking about mental health and mental illness. And I can even personally think about, you know, kids, that classmates of mine that I had in elementary school, that now when I look back, I’m like, Oh, you might have actually just had, like, some type of mental health issue that could have been supported, but because of context, and the time that we were in, people didn’t talk about it. So there is an increased awareness, which is, is is also, you know, it’s not even a change in numbers or a change of circumstances that are causing more mental health issues or whatever, there’s just an awareness of it that’s happening. I do think that generally, there is there are, you know, just the stuff of life, right? We know that the economic stress on families, family separation, all those kinds of things. I mean, those are things that cause or are parts of the cause for children’s children’s challenges with their with their own mental health. And as society and circumstances change, I think those are also adding to the numbers that we have. But I would say that really the pandemic has has, is really where where we are at the point that we are at in terms of, of numbers, where there’s been just this huge increase in things like isolation, separation from friends and family. You know, just stress and I think the evidence would say that the pandemic has had a significant impact on it. And I don’t know that there are specific causes, you know, outside of the pandemic, I don’t know that there are specific causes that are causing an increase in the number of kids dealing with mental health challenges. It is really more I would say just an awareness of it, and a recognition that these are some things that you can have an intervention on early and that if you seek out the care if you’re struggling to understand something that’s going on with your child, that is why people are more comfortable seeking out the care which is adding to the to the numbers as we as we perceive them.

So on that note, Tatum, what would you say gives you hope, you know, you talked so eloquently about sort of the multiple perspectives you have on this topic. And the challenges ahead as daunting as they may be, because we are talking about a situation that can last across the lifetime, if not handled, you know, in a timely manner. So as you look at your role as you look and take sort of a, a sky high view of things to come, what gives you hope?

That’s a great question. I have to remind myself to be optimistic, as much as possible. What gives me hope is that that the changing nature of the conversation, right, so I think about, you know, through my work, right, I’ve been working in the health and social policy area for about 20 years now. And, you know, 15 years ago, it was not the same conversation about about mental health, and the ways in which it has changed, and that the comfort that people have, whether it’s publicly on social media, or personally with their families and friends, the way that people are able and willing to talk about it gives me a lot of hope, in terms of, you know, recognizing that it is becoming not a sort of deep, dark, hidden secret, but it is something that we can talk about. Now, the flip side of that, as I’ve already mentioned, is that the more you talk about it, the more you are aware of what the need is, but what I think is happening is that governments are also recognizing, and funders and decision makers, they’re part of this changing conversation. And they are recognizing that we need to make the kind of investments in a way that meets the needs of what this increased demand is, is is demanding of the system. And even you know, in the Ontario context, we have this the the roadmap to wellness, which is a comprehensive plan about improving mental health in the province from the government’s perspective. Now, I would say, that’s a long roadmap. And it’s a big roadmap that includes sort of adult mental health and, and addictions. And, you know, not everything is happening at the same pace that we might want to see. But to know that something that government would have not even focused on 15 years ago, is now a pillar of their social policy, health and social policy, decision making. And so that to me, gives me hope that at least we are laying the groundwork for a path towards improving things for for all people suffering from mental illness, but particularly for kids. And within that context, a lot of work to be done. But I do think that at least knowing that there is there is a plan in place, and that there’s an emphasis on it that we can always go back to it becomes a point of reference to, you know, hold people accountable, hold government accountable to say, you know, what are you doing on this roadmap, and how far we’ll be moved or not moved as we would like to. And then I also just think that, that, that generally, as it has, has, that conversation has changed the ways in which people are comfortable sharing about their own experiences, you know, I think, for example, CMH o runs a program called parents for Children’s Mental Health. And it’s an entirely peer support program for parents to be able to talk to other parents who are going through similar experiences with their children. And those kind of peer support was not a thing in mental illness, you know, again, 15 or 20 years ago, but now that you have, you know, self identifying voluntary parents who are looking to come together to support each other, and share with them with each other, their own experiences, that to me is a huge opportunity, because at least you’re not feeling the same kind of isolation that you might have felt before you have better access to avoid some of the confusion that you might have experienced when you were going through this. And so again, I see that as a real opportunity in terms of even just information sharing, to know that you’re not alone and to know that you are doing the right things or get advice on how to improve the way that you’re helping things out. So yeah, I mean, there’s for sure, a lot of opportunity. It foundational to that is appropriate investments that need to match, you know, walk the talk, because they say, and I think that that that is coming. But yeah, there is a lot of opportunity. And there’s a lot of interests. And I think that the important thing is that, you know, changes, always incremental. But as the conversation changes, more, the right kind of supports and investments will follow.
Now, we talked briefly about the fact that you’re a relatively young dad with a three year old son, and I wonder how much has becoming a dad yourself impacted the lens through which you see all of the work that you’re doing in this specific field? In your professional life?

Yeah, I mean, I It’s nice that you called me a young dad, I don’t know that I’m a young dad, we have a young son. But it you know, what it really did is it crystallized for me the importance of this of this issue. And I have, as I’ve said, I’ve worked in health policy before I’ve worked in mental health policy as well. And you kind of have this intellectual understanding of the challenges and the opportunities and the way that the system works. And being a dad has crystallized for me, like I said, the ways in which a family may have to interact with the system, and what you need from the system and what it would mean to have the right type of care. It’s also validated for me the idea, you know, many of the policy files that I’ve worked on, I’ve made an effort Do us the philosophy of Nothing about us without us, which is sort of do not make decisions, whether it’s about poverty reduction, or child welfare or mental health without engaging those people who are engaged in those systems. And so now, I can absolutely see the ways in which, you know, in my past, I might have, again, had this sort of intellectual understanding of the sick changes that need to happen. But now, as a parent, I can understand, oh, you know, the views of families are not always incorporated into how decisions are made. You know, and I’ll use a very real example, we’ve heard a lot, it’s not even mental health, but we’ve heard in the children’s health sector about how they’re having two surgeries that have been scheduled, they’re having to postpone some of those. And I heard a parent in another conversation, use the language, they often call those elective surgeries. And the parents said, We need to stop using the word elective, because in a parent’s mind, if you’re told that your child needs surgery, that’s not elected, that’s not just because you want to get it done, it is critical and necessary to have it happen right away. So I just used that I use that as an example of the ways in which being a parent and the lived experience of families that are going through this is so important, and for me, that’s been one of the big eye openers, you know, our son has had to go to the emergency room, and we’ve had to do, you know, engage with the health system, and I now see it through the perspective of how important it is that you use and build on. And in fact, just follow the direction of, of parents and kids and their lived experience in the system. So yeah, a lot of different ways in which, you know, the reality of being a parent has informed the way that I think about the system and the kind of change that we need to have, and the kind of language that we need to use. And and also the understanding what the priorities are and being a parent has, has, has given me the opportunity to think about things in a slightly different way.

What would you like to leave parents who are listening or watching today with in terms of a message? These are people who may be struggling with a child who’s diagnosed or undiagnosed with a mental illness? What would you like to say to them?

Have hope, right, I mean, in some ways, it’s, it’s often all that we can hold on to, but, you know, please try to be hopeful and optimistic and forward looking for the challenges that your child is facing, but also be the voice that you can be there is no better advocate for a child than their own parent. And or someone, a caregiver or guardian who can advocate because they know the needs of that child, and to not be afraid to engage and to ask questions and to met to demand more from the system. I would also say that work with this system and those that are in it right now. It is it is that, you know, we talk about things like burnout in health, human resources, and our, our staff and our agencies are working as hard as they can. And just to, you know, they are on your side that for the most part for you know, as much as possible in terms of families and children, and work with them advocating where necessary, you know, engaging with them appropriately, also are necessary. But But don’t lose hope, and do what you need to do to, to get the system to meet your needs. But also, this is, you know, children’s mental health is not a political issue, necessarily. It’s not, it’s not something that makes or breaks or is a deal breaker in terms of elections. But keep raising your voice in that way. Engage with your MPP engaged with your decision makers, your federal MP your city, to make sure that people know that this is not something that you can just ignore, that decision makers can ignore. And because the truth is, kids can’t wait. As you know, that’s our hashtag that we use in our social media. And nobody knows that better than the parents of a child who’s going through it. And where you have the capacity, I know that this is exhausting. So I’m not suggesting that it’s on you to also advocate for the system, but when and where you can bring your voice to the table and become engaged. And that’s how we’ll make the kind of change that we need to see in the system.

Tatum Wilson, CEO of children’s mental health Ontario, thank you so much for sharing your time with us today. Thank you.

It’s been really a real pleasure and thanks for your attention to the issue.

During an interview with Where Parents Talk, Wilson told host Lianne Castelino there are currently 28,000 kids on a waitlist for mental health services in Ontario.

“What we need to have is a system of care that allows children to access the right kind of care that they need, and at the right time,” says Wilson, who began his role in the Spring of 2022, following a decades-long career focused on children, youth, social justice and equity.

“I’m the child of public servants,” he continues. “My dad worked for the WSIB [Workplace Safety and Insurance Board] for his whole career, and my mom is a retired principal. And so public service and being engaged in the world and trying to sort of make things better has always been part of my DNA.”

He also witnessed mental illness first-hand growing up.

“What has driven me to this work is my father had a brother and a sister, who have both since passed away, but who had schizophrenia, and their lives were very, very challenging, street-involved at times, homelessness, and a number of challenges in that regard,” says. “And I couldn’t help but notice, and in my conversations with my family that had they had access to the kind of services that we’re trying to advocate for now at CMHO, their lives would have been significantly better.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Commission, “70 per cent of persons living with a mental illness see their symptoms begin before age 18.” Yet, a small number, estimated at less than 20 per cent of youth, receive the mental health services they need.

“Mental illness affects some 1.2 million of our children and youth,” says the Canadian Mental Health Commission’s website. “By age 25, that number rises to 7.5 million (about one in five Canadians).”

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory sounding the alarm on, “the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.”

The Advisory outlines recommendations and the need for swift action on what is already widely described as a global epidemic among children and youth — further exacerbated by the widespread disruption inflicted by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

The numbers in Canada’s largest province are just as worrisome.

Tatum Wilson and his team at CMHO are well aware of the daunting statistics.

“We represent about 85 of Ontario’s publicly-funded child and youth mental health agencies,” says Wilson. “And together, they represent about 95% of the funding that goes out for child and youth mental health. “In a survey done for wait times and access pre-pandemic, in the worst-case scenario is a 2.5 year wait. Just sit with that for a second — two and a half years to wait to get access to services. And often that’s even the case particularly for those who are in the most need of intensive treatment,” he says.

During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Tatum Wilson also discusses:

  • Advice for families struggling with a child who may have mental health concerns
  • Impact of inadequate or no intervention | treatment on children and youth
  • Future vision for mental health services for young people in Ontario
  • Root causes of many mental health issues in young people
  • Reasons for optimism

Related links: (Children’s Mental Health Ontario) (Mental Health Commission of Canada) (Canadian Mental Health Association)

Related stories:

My Mental Health Journey as a Dad: Corey Hirsch

Tackling the Rising Mental Health Condition of Eating Disorders with Nutrition Therapist Alida Iacobellis

Practical Tips to Address Mental Health and Wellness Challenges in Families: Psychotherapist POV

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