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Most area residents feeling pretty positive

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Tara Jeffrey

When it comes to mental wellness, the residents of Sarnia-Lambton are doing better than we think.

So says Dr. Sudit Renade, the county’s medical officer of health, who released a comprehensive report on mental health and mental illness earlier this month that describes a ‘flourishing and resilient’ community.

“We are fighting this perception that we’re sort of ‘worse off’ than others, especially every time a crisis occurs,” said Renade, noting that 7 out of 10 residents actually describe their mental health as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good.’

“Generally, most people are doing quite well in terms of their mental health.”

Still, Renade pointed to “pockets of vulnerability.” These are people who experience stigma, who can’t or don’t receive adequate support, and those who are uncomfortable seeking help — especially between the ages of 15 and 24, those with few financial resources, or living with chronic physical conditions.

“Our most vulnerable people experience the greatest stigma and worst baseline mental health… and we need to pay particular attention to our children and youth in order to protect their mental well being,” he said.

The extensive profile was compiled with data from surveys, health-care services and community partners. It focuses on specific settings including hospitals, schools, workplaces, the justice system and primary care.

According to the profile, one in five local residents report having ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, though many feel the social stigma has eased in recent years.

Emergency department visits and hospitalization for mental health and addiction are on the rise, with 2,873 emergency visits in 2016 (highest among ages 15-24, 60% female) and 864 hospitalizations (highest among ages 15-19, 70% female).

In terms of the hospitalization, Lambton ranked 8th of 36 health units in Ontario, (the highest ranked were predominantly northern communities).

Meanwhile, the local rate of emergency visits for self-harm is consistently lower than the Ontario average, while the local suicide rate fluctuates above and below the provincial rate of 8 to10 per 100,000 people per year.

In 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 21 people committed suicide. The suicide rate from 2010 to 2015 was higher than the previous five years, with 90% of them adults.

“I have a lot of friends who self-harm,” wrote one Grade 9 student in the report, which includes dozens of personal anecdotes from residents. “I’ve helped 15 of my friends stop… adults can’t always help; you can’t wait for us to turn to them.”

The profile includes snapshots from local service providers. CMHA, served 2,274 clients between May of 2017 and March of 2018 (highest among ages 25-34), while St. Clair Child & Youth Services (SCCYS) served 1,529 youth in 2016-2017, the largest age group being 6-10.

In one year, nearly 300 youth presented to SCCYS with suicidal thoughts.

Among Lambton-Kent students surveyed, 86% said they were able to ‘enjoy normal day-to-day activities most or all of the time’ while 10% reported feeling “worthless all of the time. Nine percent reported losing sleep “all of the time” because of worry.

Timely access to treatment was noted as a critical area for future improvement.

“When you are emotionally at an all-time low, it’s hard to make that first step in the first place,” wrote one participant. “…and then have to wait a month to see a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker is the most brutal thing ever. It would be great it there was a bridging program of some sorts to get people from registry to programming.”

Craig Mackenzie of SCCYS said wait times have steadily improved, and, with the exception of some specialized services, clients who walk in the door are connected with counselling services immediately.

He also pointed to walk-in therapy clinics in Sarnia and expanding into the county, to help reduce wait times.

“It’s certainly not a perfect system,” he said. “But there has been a real strong push regarding the way we do business.”

Renade said the report will be used as a starting point for policy makers, organizational decision makers and community advocates. He points to better coordination among service providers, training and support for stakeholders in the justice system, and a comprehensive, community-wide effort to address mental health.

“Mental health affects everyone, and there’s something everyone can do about it,” he said. “We can do better.

“We must do better.”

The report, Mental Health Profile Lambton County 2018, is available online at www.mindsconnected.ca.

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