The Canadian Pediatric Mental Health Crisis: 5 Ways Employers can Support Parents and Make a Difference

By Kixcare

April 19, 2024

Written by Cristina Tullio, RN, BNI

As the warmth of spring begins to fill the air, so does the pollen that triggers seasonal allergies in many children. Seasonal allergies tend to start around March in Canada, and last until October or sometimes later depending on the specific allergen. Follow this KixNurse written comprehensive guide to learn how to effectively recognize and manage the symptoms of your child’s seasonal allergies at home.

Canada's mental health care system is overwhelmed. Within this system, pediatric mental health care is in full-blown crisis. In this post-pandemic landscape, 1 in 4 children will experience a mental illness, with 70% of children reporting a decrease in their mental health since the pandemic began. Despite the growing rate of children struggling with mental illnesses, there is a lack of access to care. More specifically, this means that 75% of children with mental illness cannot access the specialized care they need. In fact, in Ontario, 1 in 3 parents are seeking mental health services for their child, but of these, 4 in 10 haven’t found help or are still waiting.

The implications of this crisis are already coming to light, with Canada having the 3rd highest youth suicide rate in the industrialized world. Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, pediatric mental health’s specialized needs are overwhelmed by a tsunami of lack of resources, increased demand, lack of access, and understaffing.

When a child is struggling with their mental health, so too does the whole family. For parents, the anguish of watching their children suffer is compounded by the stress of navigating a system that is letting them down. This worry and pain carry forward to their coworkers and employers, with studies indicating that 6 in 10 working parents identify that they worry about their child’s mental well being, and 53% of parents indicating they have taken off at least one day a month because of concerns about their child’s mental health. More specifically, in Ontario, 1 in 4 parents have missed work to care for their child with anxiety issues alone . Even when at work, parents of children that are struggling with mental illness report that 30-50% of their thoughts are on their child’s mental well being.

The ripple effects of this crisis spread through every workplace. It is seen in the loss of productivity and increased attrition, burnout, and sick leave - a landmark Canadian study in 2017 estimated that $421 billion in productivity was lost annually in Ontario alone, owing to parental absence due to their child’s mental health . Think now of what that number may look like in this post-Covid landscape, with the exponential increase in child mental illness.

Most important, though, are the effects this crisis will have on our future generations. Our children are the ones that will bear the weight of our systemic failures. Our failures now, will impact them, and the generations that follow them. They are the future teachers, caregivers, spouses, friends, and academics. They will also become parents to their own future generation, which will absorb their struggles in perpetuity. By not doing our very best to address their mental health, we are setting them up to be unable to meet their full potential in life.

Remember too, that this is the next generation of our workforce. The future of your companies and industries. They are your next employees and our next great leaders. Our society’s children deserve to get a chance to be all they can be, without the weight of a lifetime of unaddressed mental health challenges holding them back. However, this is only possible if we start addressing the barriers they are facing.

How employers can help

Where our system struggles, employers have a unique and valuable space to step in and support their employees. Join us as we discuss five actionable tips to make a real difference for their employees' families when the system cannot.

Tip 1: ASK

This is the starting point for every business wanting to create a culture that truly meets the needs of their employees so they can meet their full potential. Check your assumptions at the door regarding how you may feel your company addresses mental health needs. Speaking to your employees individually (where possible) and through group info gathering that allows privacy is a great way to “take the temperature” of what your employees are facing. Ask how the company is doing with supporting not just their mental health but their children’s. If applicable and appropriate, share experiences you may have had with mental health in your own life and family to encourage communication and help break down stigma.

Make sure to highlight any existing resources for employees that they may not realize are already in place. Also, take the time to do regular follow-ups after you make interventions to gauge if they were effective.

Tip 2: BUILD TRUST AND TRANSPARENCY

Once you have an inventory of your company's needs, prioritize a culture that makes mental health, and pediatric mental health, a genuine priority, not just a requirement. Remember that no matter how open you may feel your employees are with you, mental health still carries real societal and workplace stigma, and this is even more so with children. More than half – 54% – of employees report a concern about their child's mental health, but of that 54%, only 20-23% felt comfortable disclosing this to their HR, supervisor or even coworkers. This means that while you may assume mental health is a minor issue in your team, it is most likely affecting a much larger number of your workers than you realize.

Therefore as employers, you must address the elephant in the room and create dialogue. Do this consistently, addressing the prevalence of pediatric mental health issues and the concerns surrounding it. Offer passive access to supports such as a corporate Calm or Headspace apps for families to use, and create policies that protect your employees' roles if they are dealing with a mental health crisis in their child.

No matter the size of the company, taking a personal, vested interest in the health and wellness of your employees' children makes employees feel valued and improves company culture. Open dialogue, flexible hours, family-centred policies, and remote workplace options will help decrease parent stress, increase productivity, and decrease the absenteeism of working parents.

Tip 3: EDUCATE AND ADVOCATE

As there is still a lack of knowledge and existing stigma surrounding mental illness in children, many parents do not recognize symptoms in their children until it becomes a crisis. Offering consistent and ongoing education and awareness around children's mental health can help parents recognize issues and ask for help sooner.

Many internal initiatives can be done to inform working parents. Some include creating an employee resource group for working parents with mental health concerns, dispersing educational materials about mental health issues and how to spot them, and arranging educational sessions for parents to attend featuring mental health concerns they may be facing. Eighty-eight percent of employees say they are interested in their employers offering such resources and courses, with 54% even selecting “very interested”. The fact that so many working parents are looking for this type of support cannot be ignored.

As a company, openly support and donate to organizations that influence children's mental health (and mental health in general). Also, align your workplace with these organizations for fundraising events. For example, you can show support on a digital level, be involved in public conversations and publicly advocate for children’s mental health when possible. Make it known to your internal and external following, that this is a cause that matters to your company. This increases the voices speaking for these children, bringing them closer to the support they need while also providing you with the opportunity to strengthen your company’s image and garner respect from employees.

Tip 4: PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR (COVERAGE) IS

While diagnosis and prescription of medication for mental illness are covered by our provincial health care plan, there is a shortage of family doctors, pediatricians and pediatric psychiatrists with the knowledge to do this. Most families use their family doctor for their mental health concerns, but a large portion of family physicians reported feeling uncomfortable diagnosing and managing a pediatric mental illness.

Once diagnosed, those needing intensive treatment centres or access to therapy through publicly funded mental health clinics face long wait times and a lack of staffing. Waitlists for OHIP-covered referrals have doubled in the last two years, and Ontario children are waiting as long as 2.5 years for mental health referrals they desperately need. What's more, is that the mainstay of pediatric mental health treatment lies in therapy. These psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, behaviour analysts and more are not covered by provincial health plans and are out-of-pocket expenses for families.

With that being said, the Canadian Psychological Association states that 78% of Canadians feel that the cost of out of pocket expenses for therapists is a barrier to their ability to access care. With the barriers of costs and wait times for accessing care, how are the children supposed to find support?

As an employer, you can do your part by assessing your current benefits coverage regarding family mental health. Look at what mental health really costs a family, and see how far your current coverage will go in the ongoing treatment of their child. Each pediatric mental health patient needs a slightly different constellation of services, so allowing robust health spending allowances for families to use as needed gets their kids the help they deserve.

TIP 5: BE INNOVATIVE

As an employer, implementing the former suggestions are a formidable start. However, a systemic gap still leaves families waiting for care, whether publicly paid for or out of pocket.

Addressing this unprecedented need requires an innovative approach from employers, healthcare providers, and parents themselves.

As a team of dedicated pediatric healthcare professionals, we at KixCare see this need all too clearly on a daily basis. As we practice family-centred care, we believe collaboration is the key to a healthy child. This position statement from the Canadian Pediatric Society supports this model of care, as it suggests that the answer to the ongoing shortages lie in the collaboration of providers to provide continuity of care and support children as they are treated or wait for treatment.

Our Kix360° subscription allows timely access to a full team of trained pediatric healthcare professionals, including 24/7 access to pediatric nurses, unlimited nurse practitioner visits, and access to pediatricians to aid in screening, diagnosis, ongoing support, education, and follow-up. We also have partnerships with other much-needed pediatric mental health therapists and providers, so your employees can get timely access to additional support their child needs with the help of their health benefits. These specialists work in conjunction with the core pediatric healthcare team to ensure children have access to the care they need.

Conclusion

The current climate of our overwhelmed mental health system means that our children are suffering the consequences. However, this means parents are suffering as well. The health and economic impacts of these failures are many, and are still being uncovered. As an employer, you are a key stakeholder in addressing this monumental need. You can meet this challenge by implementing the above tips, and harnessing the power and resources of pediatric virtual care solutions. This is an impactful way to give your employees the complete specialized team their child needs. This way, kids can get back to being kids, and their parents can realize their full professional potential.

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