When Barbara Mekinda’s ten-year-old son came to her with a secret, she had no idea that what he was about to reveal would lead them both down into the rabbit hole of Ontario’s mental health system.
At this point, Mekinda had been a social worker for more than fifteen years. She’d worked with adults, adolescents and children living with mental health issues, but even her front-line experience wasn’t sufficient preparation for the challenges her family would face.
“What my son told me changed everything,” Mekinda says. “What he revealed was clearly indicative of an anxiety disorder and we spent well over a year navigating the health care system, securing the right services, and waiting.”
Oh yes, the waiting.
When my family went through a similar experience, we were shocked to learn that our local hospital had one physician dedicated to child and adolescent mental health.
Our options were to wait several months for an intake consultation or take our daughter to Emergency. We opted for the latter and were told we could either have her admitted, wait months for an appointment with the resident child psychiatrist or explore private therapy.
Admitting a nine-year-old into a psychiatric ward has to be the last resort so we took her home, pulled her out of school and began private therapy which, fortunately, is helping. But not everyone has that option and finding a therapist who specializes in your child’s issue(s), who is local, affordable and doesn’t also have a lengthy waitlist can be extremely challenging.
With her son, Mekinda also discovered what many of us parenting children with mental health issues struggle to understand and accept, which is that even if your child is in immediate distress you have to wait. And the wait for child and adolescent mental health services in this province is outrageous. The National Post recently reported that more than 28,000 children in Ontario alone are waiting to receive mental health support. The number of available practitioners and services has, obviously, not kept with the community’s need because according to the Children’s Mental Health Ontario agency, 1 in 5 children will experience some form of mental health challenge and 4 out of 5 of them are not receiving appropriate treatment.
After a firsthand look at the astounding gaps in service, Mekinda started her own company.
“Hillcrest Health Network was born out of a parent-lived experience and years of front-line work,” says Mekinda. “As a designated public servant within the public health care landscape, I lived it as a parent and worked within it as a social worker.”
Hillcrest Health Network is a private case management company that provides system navigation and resource matching, advocacy, crisis intervention, care coordination and support around meeting your family’s mental health needs. Additionally, they have a network of professionals that are able to provide immediate support including psychiatric nurses, pediatric occupational therapists, psychotherapists, education specialists and several other professions. Many of Hillcrest Health Network’s services are also provided in the client’s home, allowing for greater in-depth assessments and convenience to the family.
“As a parent, I absolutely relate to the fears, uncertainty, stress, isolation and judgement,” says Mekinda, which is part of the reason she recently added Parent Coaching and Support, which teaches parents specific, evidence-supported strategies on how to parent a child with a mental health concern or a diagnosis. As well, a new Psycho-Educational Support and Enrichment Program will guide children towards developing strategies around coping and excelling academically while managing their mental health. The program also helps parents navigate the school system, resources, individual education plans (IEP’s), and advocacy for their child.
Mekinda’s son is better but they’re not out of the woods yet. “It’s a process,” she says, “and a challenging one for sure.”
Barbara Mekinda is a Registered Social Worker specializing in child and adolescent mental health. She is also a Toronto-based mom to two boys and the founder of Hillcrest Health Network, a case management company that provides care coordination, parent support, and service access for families afflicted by mental illness. Barbara has been a mental health clinician for over fifteen years.