As journalists, we are constantly called on to become temporary experts on issues.
Such was the case with the stories I’d written on children’s mental health issues, or so I thought. I’d written news stories on the crisis in children’s mental health whenever a program was cut or a new budget was announced with no new funding for services.
Each time I completed my interviews there was always somebody at the other end of the phone who would urge me to take a closer look at this issue because it was really much bigger than the media realized.
The daily demands of being a beat reporter prevented that from happening. Two years ago I pitched the idea to my editor to do an in-depth series on the local crisis in children’s mental health. I thought I knew the issue inside and out after writing about it on and off for 15 years.
I knew that the agencies were desperate for cash and that children were not being seen early because of staff shortages and not enough child psychiatrists.
I knew that, despite the Herculean efforts of many parents and professionals that the issue was still very much in the closet because of the shame and blame parents felt and that because of that, children’s mental health services still did not have the profile it deserved.
When I finally sat down to tackle the big picture on this issue for a series for the Spectator, I discovered the real story of what all those people had been referring to for all those years. The crisis was indeed far more extensive than I had realized and affected a far greater number of children and their families.
After writing a news story in which I invited parents and professionals to call me, my phone was busy for days and the high volume of emails overloaded my system beyond capacity.
They were mostly from parents calling to tell me stories of their children in crisis. Agency directors also called, as did psychiatrists and teachers, all with their own stories of how children’s mental health services were completely underfunded and inadequate.
As a journalist, it was a story I couldn’t walk away from. As a parent, I was touched by the heartbreaking stories. There were so many parents who had been thrust into survival mode as they tried to find help for their children.
After I completed the four-part series for the Spectator I was thrilled to learn that I had been chosen as the 2008 recipient for the Michener-Deacon Fellowship. It would provide me with the time I needed to take a look at this issue on a national scale, something I never would have accomplished within the new constraints of newspaper budgets.
During my four months of research, I was able to visit British Columbia to take a look at how that province had become the first in Canada to set up a province-wide child and youth mental health plan.
In Halifax, I looked at the country’s first phone counselling service, which manages to get help to children and their families within 48 hours, something that is unprecedented with any other counselling program.
In Regina, I interviewed staff at an Aboriginal children’s mental health program where cultural traditions are interwoven with the fabric of every day programs. Driving people to appointments, meeting them in community centres or in their homes for counselling appointments and helping out when their child was suspended or needed to get to a doctor’s appointment are all part of her job.
It is a pioneering initiative but also made so much sense when one looked at the basic obstacles that stood in the way of parents getting help for their children, especially in rural areas and especially among lower socioeconomic groups.
In Ottawa I met with the brightest minds in the field of children’s mental health and learned that, while there are many pockets of excellence in this country, few researchers know what is going on in other parts of the country.
I was nearing the completion of my four months when someone asked me if I found the work I was doing to be depressing. After thinking for a few minutes, I realized I was more optimistic than when I began.
I’d discovered so many people working tirelessly behind the scenes and so many new programs were being developed. Many unfortunately were the country’s best-kept secret so there is still too much reinventing of the wheel going on.
We often hear the saying “our children are our future.” Unfortunately, while it’s a charming Hallmark sentiment, funding cuts for children’s services tell a different story. Canada is the only industrialized nation that lacks a national childcare strategy and children’s services are in disarray.
So while we may consider children our future, parents of children with mental health issues will tell you a different story. They’ll tell you this is lip service and that there are still many miles to go before changes will come.
The good news is that much is happening in this field, which is why my research came at the perfect time. Parent’s support and advocacy groups are growing, agencies are meeting and politicians are mapping out new frameworks for change.
I hope somewhere amongst all that momentum that my stories helped push the issue a little further higher up the radar and helped raise awareness.
I want to thank the judges and directors of the Michener-Deacon Foundation for the opportunity to explore this issue on a deeper level. It’s been a privilege to be able to write about these issues from so many different angles and show the faces of the people who are impacted and tell their stories. At a time when newsrooms are being downsized and budgets cut, this fellowship allows journalist to continue the tradition of investigating subjects that need to be written about.
I would strongly encourage other journalists to apply. And to echo the comments of previous fellowship winner Chris Cobb, it’s a great party at Rideau Hall.
Note: Denise Davy’s 7-part series on the crisis in children’s mental health care can be accessed here: One in Five