This is part two of a special series on Mental Health in Greater Victoria. Find the entire series online at vicnews.com/tag/mental-health-in-greater-victoria. You can also find Black Press Media’s Mental Health Resource Guide online at vicnews.com/e-editions.
Youth can have a hard time opening up to adults. But when they do, what happens when that chosen adult isn’t prepared for the conversation?
It’s a situation Dave Saunders has found himself in a number of times.
Saunders, a former Western Hockey League player, started coaching lacrosse when he was 19. When his daughters were getting into sports around the age of five, he started coaching everything from hockey to softball and has 16 years of experience under his belt.
“When I first started you’d get nothing,” Saunders explained, adding whoever put up their hand to coach was given a whistle and sent on their way. Over time more protocols were put into place for interacting with parents and players, playbooks and even how to deal with concussions or other injuries.
But mental health was never discussed.
Mental disorders in youth are ranked as the second-highest hospital care expenditure in Canada, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, surpassed only by injuries. In Canada, 3.2 million youth between the ages of 12 and 19 are at risk for developing depression, and suicide is among the leading causes of death in Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 with 4,000 people dying by suicide each year.
But assessing and treating mental health can be much harder than broken bones.
“Often you’d just sense it,” Saunders said as he sat in the bleachers at the Juan de Fuca arena, overlooking the ice, the first banner his team won hanging on the wall. “Sometimes you’d just get to know these kids like family.”
As a coach, Saunders noted he’d see his players throughout their day, often at times when parents were working, and got to know a different side to them. “You watch them go through the teenage years … I coached some of the girls for 10 years.”
Often, idle talk about slapshots or grounders would turn to something deeper.
“One of my players came up to me and said ‘Coach, I don’t feel well and I haven’t for a while and I don’t want to live any more.’ As a coach, what do you say to that?”
Suddenly he’d be forced to make a decision between breaking that trust and his role as their mentor by letting parents know. Unfortunately, it was a situation Saunders found himself in several times during his coaching career.
“It wasn’t uncommon, you’d see different scenarios,” he said, speaking in general about mental health. “The main thing is letting the kids know they’re not alone and it’s OK to speak out.”
In other situations, a player wouldn’t show up for a few practices, so he’d call home only to reach a distraught parent who didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
“When I first started 16 years ago, I didn’t know where to go,” he confessed.
But over the past few years, he started to see a shift. Mental health is talked about more openly in the dressing room with team captains and assistant captains taking more notice of their fellow teammates and even flagging some behaviour or incidents that may have happened at school for coaches. Saunders also noted there are no phones in the dressing room or on the ice, so players have at least a brief break from social media.
“That was never there when I was a kid … It’s a different world,” he added. “Sports kept me out of trouble when I was young, kept me healthy.”
But only one out five children who need mental health services receive them, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“A Pathway to Hope” is a 32-page report examining mental health and addiction services in the province, released in June 2019 by B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. This fledgeling ministry was created in 2017 and is the first of its kind in Canada. The report lays out the B.C. government’s 10-year vision for mental health and addictions care while identifying priority actions.
The report estimated 84,000 B.C. children between the ages of four and 17 are experiencing mental health disorders at any given time. Between 2009 and 2017, there was an 86 per cent increase in hospitalization in B.C. for mental health issues for people under the age of 25. It’s estimated 70 per cent of mental health and substance use problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence.
“Because mental health and substance use care have never been a priority of any provincial government, services today are fragmented, and lack consistency of oversight and delivery,” the report noted. “We don’t have a clear picture of the magnitude of need.”
Which means residents are forced to navigate between primary, community and acute or emergency services in both the public and private sectors.
That’s why Saunders has spent the past year-and-a-half working on behalf of the Saunders Family Foundation with the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island and Foundry Victoria to establish a guide that can be handed out at the beginning of the season to coaches.
“Really it’s for anyone who encounters a young person struggling with mental health or substance abuse,” explained Jen Harrison, youth and family engagement coordinator and wellness navigator at Foundry Victoria.
Constructed with input from doctors, FamilySmart and caregivers, it’s meant to act as a map of options for the first steps in seeking help. “Nothing about navigating those systems is linear,” Harrison added. “It’s meant as a connection tool, not a fix.”
With a doctor shortage across Greater Victoria, operations manager Melanie Winter said the Foundry is no different than other walk-in clinics, often reaching capacity early in the day. “Since opening the doors we’ve seen an influx … There’s just not enough time or resources available for every single person.”
Located at 818 Douglas St., Foundry Victoria provides young people with free mental health and substance use support, primary care, peer support and social services as well as offering supports for caregivers. And it’s not alone. The staff there work hard to connect with other service providers in the community to help residents navigate the system. “Everybody brings their resources to the table,” Winter added. “We work really hard to build relationships.”
And it’s needed. Nearly one million British Columbians will experience a mental health or substance use issue every year, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. In her 2019 report, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, noted British Columbians rate their mental health as nearly the lowest in the country with the percentage of residents reporting positive mental health trending down.
“Everywhere is busy … there are waitlists, that’s the reality of the need right now,” Harrison added. “We’re in a healthcare crisis.”
Which has consequences felt by all. “The crisis-centred approach that defines our traditional approach to care hurts everyone,” noted that Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions report. “We know that the services needed to address these challenges aren’t keeping pace with needs.”