Mental illness more common than asthma among Manitoba kids

WINNIPEG — A new study suggests the rate of mental illness among Manitoba children is almost double the national average, and even higher in Winnipeg’s inner-city neighbourhoods and the province’s north.

About one in seven Manitoba kids between the ages of six and 19 were diagnosed with a mental disorder by a physician between 2009 and 2013, the study by health sciences researchers at the University of Manitoba said.

Among teens, the rates of suicide, substance-use disorders and psychotic disorders followed a similar pattern — exponentially higher in the north and the adjacent downtown and Point Douglas neighbourhoods in Winnipeg than in other parts of the province.

“Mental health problems in children are more common than asthma or diabetes,” lead researcher Mariette Chartier, an assistant professor in the department of community health sciences, said in a release Thursday.

The actual rates could be higher because the study only counted kids seen by a physician and not those treated by a psychologist, school counsellor or other health care professional, the authors said.

The report found the common link is poverty. A poor family can be under financial and emotional stress, live in inadequate housing and have a hard time getting nutritious food.

“Our study doesn’t give us a simple answer, but we know that social issues like poverty and poor housing have a huge impact on children’s mental health.”

The findings came as no surprise to Sel Burrows, an inner-city activist in Winnipeg. He said many problems start with poor housing conditions and a lack of affordable recreation programs.

“In much of the inner city, you’ve got … kids left living in substandard, cold housing. Of course they get depressed,” Burrows said.

Social agencies should focus more on preventative measures — keeping kids busy with sports, and helping troubled families when kids when they start missing school — rather than reacting to a crisis, he added.

The report calls on governments to increase mental health services, particularly in low-income areas and at earlier stages of a child’s development.

“Our longitudinal findings show that mental disorders are associated with children’s development before they start school, particularly in high-risk family environments with greater social and economic needs,” the report stated.

“This reinforces the need for a considerable, concerted and cross-sectoral shift to prevent mental illness before it starts, by tackling its root causes in early childhood across multiple systems and sectors.”

Premier Brian Pallister said Thursday his government recognizes the link between low incomes and mental health issues.

“We see the problem, and we recognize it as a severe and very real one. Beyond that, we’ll get into the details in the not-too-distant future.”

Pallister said one of his grandfathers became a widower and suffered from depression, leaving his daughter — Pallister’s mother — to take care of the family.

“From a personal standpoint, I know about the issues around mental health and I know of the stigma that is associated — that has been for far too long — with many aspects of mental-health challenges.”

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