Many kids with mental health illnesses are falling through the cracks in Canada, according to one of the country’s leading experts on the subject.

Speaking to his health colleagues at the 2012 Sandbox Project conference in Toronto in January, Dr. Stanley Kutcher said many of Canada’s 800,000 children with mental disorders go undiagnosed and do not receive ready access to appropriate treatment.

“Brain disorders onset early in the lifespan and they have profound and negative impacts not just at the time they come on but across the entire lifespan,” said Kutcher, who is the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health IWK Health Care Centre in the Maritimes. “It’s pervasive in the school system; it’s everywhere. We have a heck of a lot (of work) to do.”

Kutcher was speaking in his role as co-chair on the Mental Health Group in The Sandbox Project, which was established in 2011 to improve Canadian child and youth health outcomes.

‘That’s a lot of kids’

Mental health disorders, which are illnesses of the brain, contribute to over one-third of the global burden of illness, Kutcher said.

“That’s more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined,” he said. “Seventy percent of people who develop a mental illness can be diagnosed prior to age 25. One in five people will be diagnosed before age 25. That’s a lot of kids.”

In 2007 Canada’s Advisor on Healthy Children & Youth Dr. Kellie Leitch published a report that revealed Canada was underperforming according to key global health indicators for children.

The report, called Reaching for the Top, was followed up by a national research study, which prompted the creation of The Sandbox Project in an effort improve the outcomes for Canadian kids in the areas of Healthy Body Weights, Mental Health, the Environment and Injury Prevention.

EHealth solutions can help

This year the Sandbox Project Mental Health Group will pursue two key priorities, according to the project’s 2012 white paper. The first is the development and/or deployment of initiatives that help all health care providers to identify, diagnose and treat common mental disorders in young people through the “development and implementation of eHealth solutions.”

Secondly, the group plans to advocate for child and youth mental health care to be included in the 2014 Health Accord and other “relevant national health initiatives.”

Schools need to help

Meanwhile, the group plans to work with schools, educational and parent organizations, school boards and governments to help support and address the mental health care needs of children and youth by ‘incorporating best practices in school mental health.’

“Unfortunately, many of these youngsters do not get the necessary care or if they do the quality and appropriateness of it is below the level that is expected and that is offered for other health problems,” said Kutcher. “If we treat young people with cardiovascular disease the same way we treat mental illness there would be such an outcry that our politicians would be moved to action.”

Good mental health is a foundation for economic, social and personal success, he said.

“Good mental health is a learning enabler,” he said. “In our post-industrial society, it’s not the size of your biceps that will lead you to success, it’s the capacity of your brain and how it functions.”