Children's Wellness Hub Shines Light on Mental Health Issues for Youth in Cambridge

The refrain that children are resilient doesn’t sit well with Cameron Dearlove.

The executive director of Porchlight Counselling and Addiction Services has seen children suffering from anxiety and depression, those who have experienced or witnessed violence in the home, and others who have the stress of a family finances flow through them. Children can’t have those feelings or experience those events without there being a lasting impact, he said.

“They need our support to be resilient,” Dearlove said.

“That looks like therapy and unfortunately, the resources don't exist for quick and accessible therapy for all, which is what we dream of.”

That’s where Porchlight’s Children’s Wellness Hub, a satellite site tucked into the Cambridge Food Bank, comes into play. Started five years ago when Porchlight was the Family Counselling Centre of Cambridge and North Dumfries and Dearlove was executive director at the food bank, the hub was borne from the need to address mental health concerns for children of families using the food bank and food bank staff struggling to navigate the mental health system for their children.

“If our own staff, who, part of their job is helping people find resources, if they can’t navigate the system and get the support they need, then we're really struggling in the community. So, the idea was fairly simple that we wanted to create accessible free counselling and put it in an environment that people were already familiar with,” Dearlove said.

A part-time clinician was hired for the hub at that time and services branched out to help not only their original clients, but children under-18 and their families, referred by service partners.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Original funding ended, as did in-person counselling, and the hub closed.

Porchlight, however, continued to do their work and pick up the slack.

The Counselling Collaborative of Waterloo Region, an umbrella organization which Porchlight is under, saw a 107 per cent increase in children and youth coming forward for counselling in the first year of the pandemic, Cameron said. The number grew in the second and third years of the pandemic as well, with the year-one “spike” considered the new baseline.

Those were just youth that came forward, he said, noting there are those likely struggling but not asking for help.

Dearlove said while COVID-19 isn’t gone, the day-to-day concerns about the virus have diminished. The impacts have not. The weight on mental health, finances, gender-based violence and domestic violence are still prevalent.

Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario stated one and five children and youth in the province have a mental health challenge, with about 70 per cent of mental health challenges begin in childhood or as a youth.

“The pandemic kind of exacerbated these things and shone a light on them. We certainly don't see any signs of that going in the other direction,” Dearlove said.

Coupling those stresses with a six-month wait list time for children’s mental health services, the hub was revived in the spring with fresh funding from Camino Wellbeing + Mental Health, the Astley Family Foundation, a $200,000 Resilient Communities Fund grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and various other grants.

The funding not only allowed Porchlight to reopen the hub, but also hire an additional therapist, which has helped shave the six-month wait list time in half.

Dearlove said the therapy for children isn’t what’s typically seen when dealing with adults, as play therapy and art therapy is involved so children can express themselves through actions. Besides one-on-one counselling, the child’s caregivers are also included.

“We need to get everybody on the same page and working in the same direction. Often, caregivers are struggling for supports,” Dearlove said.

Porchlight has also branched out from the hub and runs a Taming the Dragon workshop in Waterloo Region schools, focusing on anxiety and depression and giving children the language to express what they are feeling. The program has been focused on Grade 4 classes, but this year are adding Grade 6 and Grade 8 as well and creating a high school component.

The hope is children and youth will reach out if the need arises.

The need, Dearlove said, never seems to ease. The hub wait list exists because the funding just isn’t there to put a bigger dent into children’s mental health counselling. He said funding is less abundant now than during the pandemic, as there was new funding made available to community organizations that is no longer there.

“Not that it was fully adequate, but there were other opportunities for funding that don't exist anymore because we're quote, unquote, done with the pandemic. But while the virus may not be as much of a problem, the impact on mental health hasn't changed,” he said.

Funding isn’t the only barrier for children and youth seeking help. The stigma of needing help for mental health issues is the same for children as it is for adults, Dearlove said.

He noted a parent admitting a child has an issue brings a feeling of failure or an admission the family is facing challenges.

“The message that we want to get out is that if your child is having mental health challenges, it is not unique. It is not your fault. What we need to do is as a community, come together and figure out how we support kids so that they can be resilient and will graduate school with opportunities, and go through school with the support that they need.”

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Porchlight's moving!

Our office at 18 Walnut St. will be closing for the final time on June 19th.

Our new office, located at 203-1315 Bishop St. N., will be opening for its first day of operations on June 24th.

All programs currently based out of our Walnut St. office will be moved to this new location. No other programs or operations at other facilities will be impacted. If you are unsure how you'll be impacted, please ask your counsellor or contact our reception desk at (519) 621-5090.

Please consider joining us for a drop in open house at our new office on June 26th from 3:00pm to 4:30pm.

Details and registration are available here.