Jac Whelan, 17, knows a lot of struggling young people in the Cowichan Valley who aren’t getting the help they need.
Whelan attends an alternative school program through Chemainus Secondary School, where she meets a lot of teens who have challenges in their life that make it difficult for them to succeed in traditional schooling. Many of them have mental health struggles and live in unstable or unsafe homes. Many are in the child welfare system, bouncing around between foster homes and group homes, she says.
“Seeing my friends in that situation is heartbreaking,” she says. “I just want to scream at everyone being like, ‘What are you doing? What are you not doing?’ There has to be something that someone can do to get us out of those situations.”
Her friend Cade, 15, needed help getting out of unsafe housing, but couldn’t get it. “I tried talking to people in government platforms to talk about either getting into youth housing or something like that, or going off and living by myself,” he says. But he couldn’t get help — not if he still had a roof over his head, he says.
Cade now lives with Jac and her mom, and uses the last name Whelan. It’s a good outcome for him, but youth need to have options beyond relying on their friends to get somewhere safe, he says.
Jac has learned to be a support to many of her peers, through their daily struggles and through crises. She’s helped friends through episodes of psychosis and suicidality, she says. Her friends have been turned away from hospitals because of the lack of services for youth, she says.
“You shouldn’t have to rely on your friends to watch you go through a schizophrenic episode. You shouldn’t have to rely on your friends to sit there on your bathroom floor with you crying. It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “That’s where I have so much anger towards everyone about the people in the [child welfare] system and the people not being supported — because those are my friends. Those are the people I care about.”
Demand for youth services increasing
Michelle Bell, executive director of Cowichan Valley Youth Services, hears stories like these every day. The agency, which provides counselling and support to teenagers and their families, has been overwhelmed by an increase in demand for its services.
“We’re drowning,” she says.
The number of teenagers coming in with mental health concerns jumped 37 percent between 2015 and 2018, representing an additional 221 youth needing support, according to statistics CVYS shared with The Discourse.
Last year, CVYS supported 86 youth that were actively self-harming and 79 that were suicidal, according to the society’s records. Counsellors supported youth through 19 suicide attempts. (As far back as Bell knows, CVYS has never lost a youth in its care to suicide, she says.)
At the same time, the wait list has bloomed to 55 youth, who can wait up to three months for service. At one point last summer, there were 82 youth waiting, many of them in urgent crisis. “We’re not proud of that at all,” says Bell. “It’s terrifying. Definitely with youth, you don’t want them to wait, ever.”
The society ran a deficit last year to hire an additional counsellor to deal with some of the backlog. This year, they’ll do the same, Bell says. “Our funding is not increasing, but our waitlist is.”
Last year, a counsellor with 20 years experience at the agency retired, says Bell. “She said, ‘I’m so glad I’m retiring, I’ve just never seen it like this. This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.’”
Youth hurt by program cuts
Bell says she can trace the roots of this crisis back to 2001, when then-Premier Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals swept into power and promptly enacted dramatic cutbacks to social services and other programs.
The first thing to go, says Bell, was preventative services. “You couldn’t even write ‘prevention’ in anything. You couldn’t say ‘prevention.’”
Bell sees a direct line between that policy shift and the dramatic rise in homelessness and suffering that’s apparent in the Cowichan Valley today.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve watched it. I’ve just watched every year, worse and worse and worse. Absolutely,” she says. “It’s exactly why we have a crisis right now.”
“We have an opioid crisis because we’re not giving any services on the front end,” she adds.
And the deeper the crisis gets, the more our society invests in easing its symptoms, rather than addressing its root causes, Bell says.
School funding also took a hit from the B.C. Liberal cuts. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, funding for B.C. schools fell 25 percent as a proportion of the province’s gross domestic product from 2001 through 2016, and fell behind every province but one on a per-student basis.
In the Cowichan Valley School District more students are struggling, says Tom Longridge, the district’s associate superintendent, who is in charge of support services.
Kids coming into most Cowichan schools are more vulnerable than they were a decade ago, according to assessments completed in partnership with the University of British Columbia. These assessments, which measure the vulnerability of children entering kindergarten in terms of their physical health, social competence, emotional maturity, cognitive development and communication skills, found about one in three kids are now starting school in B.C. “with vulnerabilities in one or more areas that are critical to their healthy development.”
That’s “a meaningful increase” across the province over the last decade, the report found.
Longridge says the increase in vulnerability scores in the Cowichan Valley is likely tied to economic and social pressures here. He cites increasing costs of housing and food, as well as the role of technology in the lives of young people. Though there’s also been an increased focus on mental health, well-being, social and emotional learning in schools, he notes.
He says he’s also seen some improvement. “We’re keeping kids in school longer, and they’re staying more connected to schools.”
The current NDP government, elected in 2017, says it’s reinvesting in support programs for youth, including school-based programs and “early intervention for students at risk or who are experiencing early signs of mental health or substance use challenges,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions emailed to The Discourse.
This year’s B.C. budget saw $74 million promised over the next three years for mental health and addictions programs for youth.
What Jac and Cade say they need
Jac and Cade are experts at navigating support systems for children and youth. They’ve seen it all — school counsellors, psychiatrists, hospitals, crisis lines, child protection workers. Ask them about those experiences, and they’ll tell you it’s mostly negative, or at best inconsistent. You might stumble on a good counsellor or a good doctor, but there’s little control over that outcome.
Youth service providers, Jac says, “are really good at being like, [sweetly] ‘Hey, we have this nice safe space and we have so many amazing adults that want to talk to you and hear about you and love you.’ Then you get there and it’s just kind of, [aggressively] ‘Hey. What do you want? What do you need? What do you want from us now?’”
“That messes with you and it prevents you from wanting to ever go to someone who’s promised a safe space because you had that bad experience,” she says.
Doctors sometimes try to medicate away a problem, without listening to what is working for the youth, Jac says. “Getting stuck in that cycle of medical professionals and adults not respecting your opinion and not respecting the idea that we know what’s happening with our bodies is terrible. It just fucking sucks and it shouldn’t be how things work, but it is.”
An exception, they say, is the support they’ve received at Cowichan Valley Youth Services. “There is an emotional connection between the majority of youth and their counsellors, and that matters a lot,” Cade says.
The counsellors at CVYS go above and beyond scheduled appointment times, they say. They’ll meet you at school if that’s what you need. They’ll give you rides, or help with bus fare. They’ll drive you to your appointment with a social worker or psychiatrist, and advocate for you there. They’ll send text messages between appointments to check in. “They offer those things and that’s amazing because it offers kids in those tough situations that obviously don’t have support from their parents — and their parents might be the issue — they have that support now,” says Jac.
Counsellors from Cowichan Valley Youth Services have literally been at Cade’s side through times of crisis. One drove him to the hospital in Victoria after a suicide attempt last fall and stayed with him until 10 p.m. to make sure he was okay, he says. Another helped him get out of an unsafe living situation by physically being there while he went to get his stuff and leave.
Although he has one CVYS counsellor he sees weekly, he has had the opportunity to connect with different counsellors within the agency, with different sets of skills. He likens it to the character selection screen of a video game: “You got Fighter, you got Sniper, you got all that good stuff.”
Jac has recently been meeting weekly with Sophia Palmer, one of the CVYS counselling staff. Before working with Palmer, she says, there were few adults in her life she felt safe coming to with anything. “I probably never would have talked about my assault, I probably never would have talked about my emotional abuse, I probably would have just held it in and talk to my friends about it occasionally, like, ‘Hey, yes, this thing happened.’ Then they will give me a hug and we will cry about it and then we’d be done. But being able to actually work through it, and feeling safe coming to someone and talking about that, it means more than words can say.”
A lot of young people don’t have that relationship with anyone, Jac says. “They don’t have the ability to work through those things, they just hold on to it and that continues the cycle of abuse or narcotic abuse and/or alcoholism. It just keeps the cycle going.”
Jac and Cade both want to see better services for Cowichan Valley youth: shelters, group homes, drop-in centres. Ultimately, “we just need a better-funded version of CVYS,” says Cade. “Honestly, this is the best thing we have for support here. Even though it’s not a bed for the night or something like that, this is probably one of the best things I could ask for. We just need more like this, just with beds.”
More healthy prevention needed, youth and counsellors agree
Bell, the executive director of CVYS, says she can prove that the agency is effective at catching kids before they fall. They keep track of youth who come through their doors, and for at least the last decade the clients haven’t been ending up on the streets, she says.
Her staff, despite overflowing caseloads and relatively low pay, remain passionate and driven because of the good outcomes they see for the youth, Bell says. “The human capital is what’s saving us.”
But social support systems are still failing to adequately invest in prevention, Bell says.
“All of the services out there are absolutely crisis-driven,” she says.
The result is that people can’t access services until things are really bad for them, she explains, at which point getting healthy and stable again is extremely difficult.
And the medical model for intervention in youth mental health just doesn’t work, she continues. That model supposes that the problem is with the person’s brain, when in most cases youth are responding in normal ways to very difficult environments, she says. Instead of changing the environment to make the youth safer, the medical model offers treatments that can inadvertently teach youth to tolerate abuse, Bell says.
Jac, Cade, and their peers aren’t waiting around for adults to fix the systems that haven’t worked for them. They’re doing the best they can, every day, with the support they can find. That means, maybe more than anything, relying on each other.
“It’s a question that we ask each other: ‘What’s your mental health right now? Do you want to go talk about it?’” says Jac. “It’s a constant thing in high school that — even though the counsellors won’t look out for us — if we see someone leaving the room, obviously getting teary-eyed, one of us will follow and go talk to that person and check in.”
Jac says her friends now come to her and say: “Hey, you know how you introduced me to this concept of us being each other’s counsellors? Having a space to barf up our emotions and then sort through it? Well, I started doing that with my other friends.”
Sophia Palmer, one of the CVYS counsellors, says both Jac and Cade already deserve PhDs in life. “I’d say ‘counsellors in the making,’ but they’re already made.”
“When I get old enough,” Jac says, “I’m going to adopt as many teenagers out of the system as I financially can, just so that they have a stable place that they can go and there will actually be someone who’s stable taking in foster kids.”
Teens and families in need of support can reach Cowichan Valley Youth Services at 250-748-0232. The Vancouver Island Crisis Line can be reached 24/7 at 1-888-494-3888.