News / Toronto

Almost half of Ontario youth miss school because of anxiety, study suggests

A survey commissioned by Children’s Mental Health Ontario suggests that children and parents miss school and work to cope with mental illness.

Shannon Nagy, 20, at the Children's Mental Health Ontario conference. The group released findings from a study that shows one in four Ontario parents have missed work to care for their child experiencing mental health issues and anxiety.

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Shannon Nagy, 20, at the Children's Mental Health Ontario conference. The group released findings from a study that shows one in four Ontario parents have missed work to care for their child experiencing mental health issues and anxiety.

At five years old, Shannon Nagy told her mother she wanted to die. In Grade 6, she missed almost the entire school year because more often than not, she couldn’t get out of bed.

Nagy, now 20, was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and borderline personality disorder and was never able to finish high school. She spent most of her childhood immersed in a mental health care system that she said “did more harm than good.”

Her struggle to get help and the impact that struggle had on her education is a trend captured in a new survey commissioned by Children’s Mental Health Ontario, released Tuesday.

It found of the 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed across the province:

  • 46 per cent had missed school due to issues related to anxiety.
  • 40 per cent had sought mental health help.
  • Of those, 50 per cent found the experience of getting help challenging.
  • 42 per cent did not get the help they needed or are still waiting.

Parents are also impacted when their child has to wait as long as 18 months for mental health care, said Kimberly Moran, CEO of CMHO, the association that represents Ontario’s publicly funded Mental Health Centres and advocates for government policies and programs.

“Parents miss work and certainly myself as a parent, I have to take time to look after my daughter,” Moran said.

The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and Ministry of Children and Youth Services did not respond to requests from the Star for comment, with Monday being a holiday.

The study, conducted by research firm Ipsos, surveyed 806 people in October and suggests that a quarter of parents have had to miss work to care for their child due to issues related to anxiety.

When her 11-year-old daughter tried to die by suicide while on a year-long wait list for mental health care, Moran took a four-month leave of absence and then worked part-time. Six years later, she still takes about 10 per cent of the year off to help her daughter.

Half of the parents surveyed found getting their child mental health help was challenging because wait times are long, they don’t know where to go, or service providers don’t offer what their child needs, don’t exist in their community, are too far away or aren’t available at convenient times.

Anxiety is one of the “big front-runners” when it comes to mental illness in youth, said Lydia Sai-Chew, CEO of Skylark Children, Youth and Families, which offers free counselling and mental health services in Toronto. Wait times at Skylark for in-patient programs can be up to six months.

“The difficulty with wait times is that the youth gets more stressed, but so does the family,” Sai-Chew said. “Anxieties build up. They don’t have the strategies and it just gets worse.”

For 13 years, Michele Sparling of Oakville has juggled owning a business and taking care of her son who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when he was 10 years old.

“If your child is home from school, you’re not leaving them alone,” Sparling said. “You’re worried when you have to step out for a moment. When a fire truck goes through your neighbourhood, you think ‘not my kid, not my kid.’

“That worry is constant.”

She said her family struggled to get her son the help he needed. In between driving him to and from appointments in Toronto, she got used to telling clients she might have to end a meeting at a moment’s notice if a crisis occurred. She watched as her son had to miss school, and continues to care for him now as he struggles with mental illness in university.

“This is not just about this one person, it’s about the bigger picture, the lost potential,” Sparling said. “I think we’re doing young people such a disservice.”

CMHO is asking the province to invest $125 million in community-based mental health centres, staffing and services for children and youth.

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