Mental Health: Steps to Increase Awareness and Accessibility to Appropriate Support Services

Mental health is a topic that has been in the forefront of contemporary discussions. One in five
Canadians experience mental health difficulties each year, with 70% of mental health problems
beginning in childhood or adolescence. These statistics may very well be changing during the
current pandemic. Yet, there continues to be stigma around seeking support.

As a child and adolescent psychologist, I work with many families addressing various issues
around mental health. What sparked this article is a combination of my work with parents of
children who think there is “something wrong” with them because they need some guidance and
support with their children; my own mental health research in vulnerable populations; and my
ongoing admiration for Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability, courage, shame and guilt. Many of
us often feel that we should be able to deal with things as they come and that seeing a therapist
is a sign of weakness. I’ve seen many wonderful, empathetic, hard-working parents say, “I need
help,” while simultaneously saying, “I am obviously doing something wrong because I am here.”

Being proactive and seeking support does not mean there is anything wrong. In fact, seeking
support encompasses both vulnerability and courage, because in the end, we would be doing
our children injustice to push these issues aside and carry on. Untreated mental health
challenges can impact individuals as well as their families on various levels, including increased
chronic stress and ongoing feelings of hopelessness that can lead to suicidal thoughts.

In fact, research shows that if mental health concerns are not addressed early, they are likely to
exacerbate and these individuals may get trapped in a vicious cycle of coming in and out of
emergency departments throughout their lives. In addition, it is also the lack of awareness in
accessing treatment that contributes to challenges in obtaining mental health support in a timely

In a recent Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) conversation series on black mental
health, for instance, research showed that black individuals in Toronto are more likely to report
poor mental health while at the same time they are more likely to access mental health care
through emergency or police services.1

Similarly, national research within Canada conducted by Yona Lunsky and colleagues has
consistently found that people with developmental disabilities are hospitalized at rates that are
significantly higher than people without developmental disabilities. Part of the reason for this is
general practitioners’ lack of understanding when it comes to diagnosing mental health
problems in individuals with developmental disabilities, which often requires information from
various sources and from different settings. As such, individuals with developmental disabilities
face significant barriers when accessing appropriate and timely mental healthcare.2

Bell Let’s Talk has been launched as a way to reduce stigma around mental health/ illness by
promoting talking widely about mental health across Canada. There have been significant
changes noted in society’s awareness and attitudes with respect to mental health. In their 2015
report3, Bell Let’s Talk indicated that 57% of Canadians believe that the stigma associated with
mental illness has been reduced compared to five years ago. At the same time, the stigma
around seeking mental health support and poor awareness of what services to access continues
to persist. Research indicates that only about one third of individuals in Canada who experience
mental health challenges actually access the services and supports that can help them. These
issues persist into treatments available to children and adolescents, with only 25% receiving
appropriate treatment services.4

Culture can also play a big role in mental health stigma. Every culture perceives mental health
differently and how people understand mental health varies. This can impact whether someone
chooses to recognize and discuss mental health symptoms. For instance, recently a South Asian
parent residing in Peel region, Ontario, Baljit Ghuman, shared that disability is considered to be a
“taboo topic” within the Punjabi Sikh community, often linked to feelings of shame.5

Education around mental health is essential. One way to reach communities is through voices of
people with lived experiences. In Baljit Ghuman’s case, he and his family launched the “Sikhs for
Autism” awareness campaign on social media and local ethnic media, which successfully reached
many families within the community by connecting them through their native language.

Increasingly, more and more ethnic communities are initiating mental health support groups
within their communities. This may be a good initial step for individuals who have mental health
concerns but who also lack awareness and may be hesitant to seek more formal mental health

Mental health/ illness perceptions matter as they dictate behaviours we do or don’t take to seek
mental health support. Brené Brown has conducted extensive research on the concepts of
shame, guilt, and vulnerability and courage, and she has noted that it is “when we find the
courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force
shame out of hiding, and end the silence.”

There is nothing wrong with having mental health difficulties; in fact, we all experience mental
health challenges in one form or another throughout our lives, and mental health/ illness may be
seen on a continuum. It is within the open conversations, starting with parents and children, that
we can normalize mental health challenges and the importance of seeking support when
needed, just as we do with physical health.

In sum, along with our evolving understanding of mental health and its importance, it is vital to
develop alternative sources of supports within the community, such as peer support groups
where people may feel more at ease as a first step to opening mental health discussions. Hearing
voices from others in our communities that experience mental health challenges is an important
step to reducing stigma and bringing forth increased acceptance and awareness of these issues.

At the end of the day, our system must be comprehensive, promoting mental health for people
of all ages and to be flexible in supporting these individuals in ways they feel are accessible and
manageable for them. Remember: it’s okay not to be okay.

1CAMH . Dismantling Anti-Black Racism: A Strategy of Fair and Just. Retrieved from

2Lunsky, Y., N. Garcin, D. Morin, V. Cobigo and E. Bradley. 2007. “Mental Health Services for
Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities in Canada: Findings from a National Survey.” Journal of
Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities 20(5): 439–47.

3Bell Canada (2015). Bell Let’s Talk: The first 5 years (2010-2015). Retrieved from

4Mental Health Commission of Canada (2009). Toward Recovery & Well-Being. Retrieved from

5Ghuman, B. (2021). Autism is Taboo in our culture. Our daughter’s diagnosis made us face it.
Retrieved from Huffington Post: https://m.huffingtonpost.ca/amp/entry/autism-taboocommunity_ca_60131abac5b6aa4bad325259/ncid=other_twitter_cooo9wqtham&utm_campaign=share_twitter&__twitter_impression=true


Marina Heifetz, Ph.D., is a Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist. She works with children,
adolescents, and families at York Region CBT clinic. She has also published and presented various
research papers on topics of healthy relationships, mindfulness, developmental disabilities,
parenting, and mental health. Dr. Heifetz enjoys teaching about child development, mental
health, and mindfulness, and has taught through numerous community workshops as well as at
the University of Toronto. She is also a mom.


This article was also published at Psychology Today, click here to view it https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/raising-mindful-kids/202103/family-mental-health-awareness-and-accessibility#_=_