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Inside Tri-Cities' growing youth mental health crisis and how parents can get help for their kids

A mental health crisis affecting a child or youth can affect the whole family; how a Port Moody-based program is trying to help out.
Mental health and substance use programs for children and youth have been enhanced in the Tri-Cities in response to growing need.

A massive increase in the number of children and youth suffering a mental health crisis or struggling with substance use has prompted Fraser Health to boost services in the Tri-Cities.

The number of youth seeking help grew 59 per cent during the pandemic and has not abated in 2022, says a family clinician who oversees support programs in the Tri-Cities.

By the end of the year, as many as 1,200 children aged six to 18 will have sought help for anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and substance use disorder in the Tri-Cities, said Geneva Healey, manager of clinical operations, child and youth with Fraser Health.

"It’s come to a point where they're in a state of crisis; they need immediate intervention and support." said Healey.

To address the increase in numbers, Fraser Health is hiring clinicians and a family therapist to work out of the Port Moody START (Short Term Assessment Response Treatment) office to help Tri-City families dealing with these challenging issues.

While the pandemic added to the stress and anxiety children face, social media, where children and youth can suffer bullying attacks 24/7 are among the underlying problems, Healey agreed.

Mental health crisis and drug use combined

There's also a recognition that youth substance use is often entwined with their mental health.

Sadly, the mix can have deadly consequences.

According to a recent BC Coroners Service report, overdose is currently the third most likely cause of death for those aged under 19 years of age.

"What research and evidence have shown is that they (mental health and drug use) are so intertwined and they so interact with each other," said Healey.

Now, Tri-City parents are getting help to talk to their kids about this sensitive topic, thanks to a partnership with Family Smart, and funded by a Tri-Cities' golf fundraiser called Johnny’s Heart of Gold.

Healey said a support worker has been hired who has "lived experience," which means their own child dealt with substance use disorder, so they can provide practical advice for parents who are struggling for ways to help their own child.

Often when confronted, youth don't want to seek treatment.

But when parents are provided with tools to talk to their children without being counter-productive, they might have some success instead of alienating them.

"Sometimes well-intentioned parents can have behaviours that push their children away," said Healey.

"We’ve discovered in the substance-use world that when shame is increased, that often increases the use and so it’s learning how to come along side and support in a way that hopefully motivates the youth to seek treatment rather than sever the relationship."

Clinicians working out of the Port Moody START office who typically deal with children's mental health concerns are also being trained to deal with their substance use issues.

How to know if your child is in a mental health crisis

The goal of the START program is to keep youth out of hospital and to provide them with support in the community — "which means a youth can sleep in their own bed supported by their loved ones who know them the best," said Healey.

These are youth who are showing a decline in their mental health that is so debilitating they are unable to participate in their daily activities.

Most often youth or parents call START for help, or it could be a school counsellor who notices that a student isn't themself.

Among the challenging array of feelings, thoughts and behaviours that could present among youth are:

  • suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • self-harm
  • intense anxiety or depression
  • a high risk of harming others
  • an inability to stop using substances
  • continued use despite health issues
  • increased tolerance for substances
  • risk taking, overdose(s) and/or withdrawal symptoms

More information about the START program in Fraser Health can be viewed online.

Anyone can book an appointment with START, including youth, families, schools, community supports and medical professionals by contacting the START Team at 1-844-START11 (1-844-782-7811).