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Ontario boosts counselling and mental health supports for youth as COVID-19 drags on

With a long pandemic winter ahead, Ontario is earmarking $24 million to boost counselling and other mental health supports for children and youth feeling the effects of COVID-19 isolation.

Almost half that money will help 80 community service agencies across the province hire more staff, create programs to manage stress, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

“For our kids and young people, it’s been especially difficult,” Premier Doug Ford said in announcing the funding that is part of a previously announced $176 million cash infusion for mental health this year.

“While classes have resumed and some after-school activities have started, not everything is back to normal,” he added at a news conference with Michael Tibollo, associate minister of mental health and addictions.

“You’re home more with your parents and siblings, you’re seeing less of your friends and relatives, and that can be stressful,” said Ford, a father of four girls.

Just under $6 million is going to 10 youth wellness hubs across the province, described as “one-stop shops” where kids and young adults from 12 to 25 can get mental health and addictions counselling, join peer support groups and get some help with school issues and job searches.

“By enabling each hub to employ a full-time youth wellness team, consisting of a mental health and addictions clinician, a primary care provider, a youth worker and a care co-ordinator, Ontario is filling long-standing and well-known service gaps,” Alexandra Hilkene, press secretary to Health Minister Christine Elliott, said Thursday.

The hubs were initiated by the previous government in February 2017, with one Toronto location near Yonge and Eglinton, another at Danforth and Pape and a third in Scarborough on Markham Road.

The rest are in Malton, Chatham, Midland, Haliburton, Niagara, Kenora, and the eastern Ontario communities of Rockland and Cornwall.

Another $4.5 million will set up four pilot programs providing early interventions for kids with eating disorders, with an eye to applying lessons learned to an expansion of the effort throughout Ontario at a later date.

That money will also establish an umbrella organization called Eating Disorders Ontario to determine best practices in the field and share them with agencies to improve the quality of services across the sector.

There is additional funding to expand mental health care in congregate settings for kids, such as group homes, and for additional structured psychotherapy.

It’s crucial to expand mental health services to children and youth because “we know that 70 per cent of these issues begin early in a person’s life,” said Tibollo.

“We’re taking a significant step.”

Elliott said the demand is clear from an increase in calls to the Kids Help Phone service and Connex Ontario, a help line at 1-866-531-2600.

“The numbers show they have struggled with isolation and uncertainty over their studies, their lives and their futures.”

There is also a free service called BounceBack Ontario for youth 15 and up which provides coaches who help kids go through workbooks at their own pace to learn how to better manage low moods, anxiety, worry or stress.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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