Canadian youth have insufficient access to mental health and addictions services, according to a Canada-wide study lead by SFU researchers. The study concluded that youth fare poorer overall compared to older age categories, but there is significant variation in provincial health outcomes.

We saw important differences in suicide rates, access to a regular physician, and mortality among people with a mental illness,” said Amanda Butler, research program manager at the SFU Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA). “The provincial differences are important because they suggest areas of needed attention, and opportunities for provinces to learn from one another.”

The study is the first to examine mental health and addictions data from five provinces. Researchers developed a set of common indicators to measure performance between provincial health care systems, overcoming the limitations of inconsistent methods of reporting.

A number of stakeholders have been calling for national-level evaluation of mental health and addictions services for decades, according to the study.

“We cannot monitor what we cannot measure. As it currently stands, we are not even able to measure the status quo,” said Butler. “One of the continued gaps in the area of mental health and addiction is government accountability.”

The provinces involved included British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec with researchers and data analysts from SFU’s CARMHA, the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services, Alberta SPOR SUPPORT Unit, Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, and Institut national de santé publique de Québec. The research was initially led by Elliot Goldner, the director of SFU’s CARMHA, until November 2016.

Despite the differences in health care services between these provinces, the research team looked at performance indicators for mental health and addictions that would lead to the most reliable and accurate report possible. The indicators included access to a family doctor, visits to the emergency room as the first point of treatment, follow-ups after hospital visits, suicide rates, and mortality.

“I was shocked to see that for children, 40–50% of their first contact with the system for a mental health reason is the emergency department,” said Butler. “There is definitely room for improvement across all provinces in prevention and early intervention to prevent adverse outcomes.”

The study operated as a ‘proof of concept’ project to prove that it is possible to work together nationwide and generate data that can be compared and utilized to better mental health and addictions support. This study succeeded in proving that data analysis and comparison across multiple provinces is possible — and the conclusive recommendation is for an ongoing system for performance measurement to be implemented.

“We know from research that more . . . information leads to less stigmatizing attitudes and behaviours,” said Butler. “It important to keep talking about the issues.”

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