Scarborough’s mental-health waiting game

Parker McDowell

YouthLink’s Walk-In Counselling meant the difference between life and death for Parker McDowell.

Scarborough is a big place: 625,000 people living in over 187 square kilometres. You could take the entire population of Hamilton and fit it neatly within Scarborough’s borders, with room to spare.

It’s also a youthful place: almost 150,000 people under the age of 20 live here. That’s 23.6% of its population, compared with 21% in the same age group for Toronto as a whole.

And, as Manager of Counselling at YouthLink Patty Hayes points out, it’s a community with substantial social and economic challenges: “There’s poverty, finding jobs is difficult, [and] the transportation system isn’t fabulous,” she says.

Seven of the city’s 13 priority neighbourhoods are located here, and it all adds up to an environment that can seriously impact mental health—an especially acute concern for young people.

Suicide is second only to accidents as a cause of death among young Canadians, taking 4,000 lives a year. (Canada has the third-highest youth-suicide rate in the industrialized world.) It’s not surprising, then, that the handful of services in a populous, younthful community like Scarborough are typically overwhelmed with clients. Some kids in immediate crisis are even waiting up to two years for help.

That’s where YouthLink steps in. A United Way–funded agency, it specializes in providing mental-health services to youth—especially important for a part of the city in which mental-health supports are hard to come by. In 2011, YouthLink began offering a simple but innovative program to address long wait times for care: a unique walk-in counselling program, offered every Wednesday from noon until 8 p.m. YouthLink is now seeing up to 30 families a night, and kids aged 12 to 21 can come with parents or guardians, or alone. Between August 2011 and August 2012, YouthLink served 409 youth through 909 free walk-in sessions. (You can read the story of one client, Parker McDowell, here.)

In addition to the regular struggles of adolescence, Hayes notes, a high proportion of newcomer youth also face cultural conflicts at home, at school, and in the city at large—which may place them at increased risk of mental-health problems. While this remains a Canada-wide issue, it’s especially acute in communities like Scarborough.

Thankfully, YouthLink is ensuring that great strides are being made. “I don’t want to paint the youth of Scarborough as in these terrible predicaments,” says Hayes. “I want to emphasize how truly, truly, remarkable they are. They navigate…a complex community that is underserviced and overlooked, and they have really remarkable skills and knowledge that I think we adults could learn from.”

What else do you think is missing from mental-health supports in Toronto? What are some of the barriers preventing young people from accessing care, and how can they be overcome?

Share your thoughts below!