Waiting list for mental-health services is a major problem facing patients

Toronto Star Article
Chantaie Allick Staff Reporter

Waiting list for mental-health services is a major problem facing patients

Austin Williamson, 15,<br /><br /><br /><br />
has attended 20 schools and been on waiting lists for counselling<br /><br /><br /><br />
services most of his life. It is only now that there’s a glimmer of hope.

Austin Williamson, 15, has attended 20 schools and been on waiting lists for counselling services most of his life. It is only now that there’s a glimmer of hope.

He waited until he was 9 before being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and an array of related developmental problems — autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified, intermittent explosive disorder.

And it is only now — after a wait that spanned five years — that mother and son are feeling a glimmer of hope for the future.

Waiting times for access to counselling or mental health services has been identified as a major barrier in Canada. And the case of Kim and Austin Williamson offers a good example of the difficulties families face.

In his early years, Austin lived with his mother in Durham, where they could find few agencies equipped to help children with the difficulties he faced. So mother and son moved to Toronto, where there are many more services — and similarly lengthy waiting lists.

As a result, Austin received no treatment for his episodic rages. Williamson, a single mother, recalls a night when she had to take him to the emergency room — on the way he was punching the car windows so hard she thought he would break them. The hospital sedated him.

Austin’s difficulties escalated when he was about 9. It seems as if he was being sent home from school every day. At this point he was only diagnosed with ADD and was on another waiting list for treatment. Williamson couldn’t afford a psychiatrist to have him reassessed and diagnosed.

“It got to the point where we were in crisis every day,” she says. “I just couldn’t wait any more. We were falling apart.”

Williamson realized there was only one thing she could do: She took him to the Children’s Aid Society, “because I knew if I did that we would get the help we needed right away,” she says. They did. Austin stayed in a group home for almost two years, giving his mother time to regroup and get services in place.

Williamson and Austin moved to Scarborough last year and, for the first time, progress is being made.

“I just thought I’ve got to do something different for our lives,” says Williamson. Even their proximity to the bus system has helped because Austin can now attend appointments on his own.

In June, he will complete his first full year at a single school. It’s his 20th school.

In short, they have finally started to get consistent help after a lifetime of waiting.

Austin has access to regular couselling services and recently was assigned a personal support worker (albeit after waiting since September). He is in a special-education program at school and there are number of after-school and youth services for him to get involved in close to their apartment.

While he was waiting to be assigned a case worker, Austin used the walk-in clinic at East Metro Youth Services. The What’s Up Walk-In is a new program that provides counselling for youth five days a week. There is no waiting. It’s a rare fix in a broken and breaking system. (The centre’s regular counselling service has a six-month wait list.)

The hope is that the walk-in clinic will reduce hospital emergency room visits and provide treatment for issues teens face before they escalate.

It has helped more than 350 teens since the Scarborough location opened in November. Youth meet with two counsellors for up to 90 minutes, no OHIP card necessary. The kids leave equipped with solutions to address a specific mental health challenge they are facing. Two more locations were opened recently.

“It’s a comfort,” said Austin who smiles easily and talks about his diagnoses with the confidence of a teen used to speaking to adults. “Never before have we had everything right next to us.”

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