‘Everything is not okay’


Lambton’s mental health and addictions leaders are calling for an immediate injection of cash to ease ‘the worst mental health crisis Ontario has ever seen’

There is a 96% increase in young people reporting suicide attempts in Lambton.

There has been a 110 per cent increase in calls to crisis lines from kids.

There’s been a 61 per cent increase in calls to children’s mental health services in Lambton.

Deaths from overdose have risen 59 per cent in Ontario.

Every week, there are over 4,500 visits to Ontario’s emergency department for mental health and addiction problems.

Those are some of the sobering statics which paint the picture of a parallel pandemic of addiction and mental health during COVID-19 crisis in Lambton County and across the province.

Five leaders in the field talked to reporters in Thursday about some of the urgent problems which are being made worse by the restrictions during the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic wait times for services were too long,” says Adrienne Spafford, the CEO of Addictions and Mental Health Ontario. “It was too hard for people to find access to the services they need…the pandemic has only made things worse.”

Craig McKenzie, the director of operations at St. Clair Child and Youth Services says young people are facing enormous pressures.

“Kids are experiencing unprecedented upheaval in their own lives. The on again-off again stay at home orders, social restrictions, school disruptions, result in feelings of
isolation and loneliness,” he says.

“And for those kids where home is not a safe place, stay-at-home orders – the social isolation – only exacerbate an already dangerous situation, increasing the risk of violence and other forms of abuse.”

And the statics show the toll it is taking

“We witnessed a 61 per cent increase in new referrals since the start of the pandemic, with our top three presenting issues being emotional difficulties, anxiety and behavior problems,” says McKenzie.

“We’ve seen a 58 per cent increase in those reporting chronic stress, 54 per cent increase in those who’ve been victims of sexual abuse, and a 32 per cent increase in the prevalence of eating disorders.

“And even more alarming… we’ve seen a 96 per cent increase in those reporting suicide attempts. Knowing that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Canada, it’s a trend we just can’t ignore.”

McKenzie says St. Clair Child and Youth Services can see people within 48 hours for an initial evaluation and help, but often their anxiety or depression has been left untreated and now needs extensive care. Those teens can wait from six months to a year to get treatment.

Dr. Cheryl Willsie, a psychiatrist at Bluewater Health, sees those young people in crisis at the hospital.

“We’re seeing huge increases in the rates of admissions to the child and adolescent unit,” says Willsie. “A couple of weeks ago, it was more than three times over capacity; so there just isn’t even room in the hospital for all of these kids that are presenting in crisis.”

When that happens, she says, people begin to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. “We’re seeing huge rates of substance-induced psychosis from both crystal meth and from cannabis,” Willsie says.

Paula Reaume-Zimmer, vice president of Mental Health & Addictions, Bluewater Health and Canadian Mental Health Association Lambton-Kent, says adult addiction services are also feeling pressure.

The newly opened Ryan’s House, a residential withdrawal management facility, is turning people who want help away.

“Our seven beds are full every day,” says Reaume-Zimmer. “In the last two months, we are turning down more individuals that were accepted into those beds.”

Spafford says it is clear “everything is not okay.

“What we are asking the government to do is prioritize access to consistent high quality services with a focus on reducing wait times for those service.”

The province has committed $3.8 billion over the next 10 year for new and expanded mental health services, but Willsie says so far that money isn’t flowing to current services.

“On the front lines of what I would consider to be the worst mental health crisis Ontario has ever seen, I have not seen any increased ability to access services in the community. If anything, it might be more of a challenge just because of the increasing need,” she says.

Reaume-Zimmer agrees.

“We know that the ongoing burden of mental illness is staring at us and we cannot delay the expansion of core services. It’s so necessary for us to respond,” she says.

“We know that we can change the trajectory of mental illness and substance use disorder when people can access us sooner and time is of the essence right now. It’s just so critical to put these resources in place…we needed to be doing that work yesterday.”

The head of Addictions and Mental Health Ontario wants the public to understand “we really are in a crisis situation. And we are the place where people’s health is deteriorating while they’re on a wait list. And we also are experiencing deaths while people on a wait list. This is very much a crisis situation,” says Spafford.

The mental health professionals are urging the province to start flowing some of the promised mental health and additions cash now to existing programs. Reaume-Zimmer says they have the programs in place and there are professionals ready to work if there is money to increase capacity.

“If we had the funding, we have people – we have resumes lined up – who want to help,” she says. “We have individuals trained in this sector… and there’s definitely resources available for if and when we received the funding.”

Spafford says there are many people who could be reached if the province and the federal government act now. “Are things going to be perfect overnight? No. But could things get a lot better very quickly if strategic investments were made? Absolutely.”

In the meantime, the Lambton mental health and addictions leaders are urging residents not to let the prospect of long wait times stop you from reaching out for help.

Reaume-Zimmer says the groups work together to help as many people as they can with the resources they have.

And McKenzie at St. Clair Child and Youth wants people to call his office or to the new youth crisis line for help.

“No matter how, how insignificant you feel it is, if you’re struggling, if you’re having trouble sleeping and not regulating your emotions, reach out to us and get connected sooner than late because quite often, we can deal with some of those issues and some of the low range anxiety and emerging depression when we get them sooner. They’re not as complex and they don’t have all the other risk factors that are disrupting people’s lives.”

“We make our best effort to meet the demand,” says McKenzie, “but despite our best efforts, our kids are at a brink right now.”

Mental and Addictions resources

  • Distress Line provides phone support to those seeking help. If you are struggling or just need to talk our volunteers are here for you 24/7 at 1-888-DISTRES (347-8737)
  • Lambton Mental Health Service Distress Line – 519-336-3445 or 
  • Lambton Child and Youth Crisis Line1-800-622-1320
  • Addictions and Problem Gambling Services at Bluewater Health – 519-464-4400, Ext. 5370
  • Addictions related help 24/7  800-721-3232
  • Needle exchange program – 519-383-8331, Ext. 3547
  • Substance abuse information – 519-383-8331, Ext. 3537
  • Sarnia-Lambton Alcoholics Anonymous 519-337-5211
  • Narcotics Anonymous 800-573-0920
  • Ontario Problem Gambling Hotline – 888-230-3505