Neighbourhood faces rising mental health challenges among youth says researcher

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by Leslie ArmstrongAdvocate WriterParents, teachers and students from elementary schools in the Jane and Finch area gathered at Westview Centennial secondary school to listen to a mental health talk by Dr. Kwame Mckenzie, a researcher and psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.The May 26 talk comes at a time when the Canadian government has taken an increased focus on the importance of mental health issues.CAMH and other mental health organizations are applauding Canada’s first ever Mental Health Strategy released May 8.Dr. Mckenzie says that we must invest in children and youth to protect the future of the Jane and Finch Area. The biggest challenge the neighbourhood faces is rising mental health issues among children.“We have bright people, but we’re not keeping them well,” he said during the talk. “The research [on mental health] in Canada isn’t good enough right now.”The Canadian Mental Health strategy has seven specific goals, which include active support from family and community members, promotion of active awareness of and where possible, prevention of mental health issues, increased accessibility of the Canadian mental health system ensuring timely access to programs and treatments which meet the needs of patients who are suffering with mental health issues. Lastly, the strategy ensures that people living with mental health issues and mental illness are not shunned, and valued within society.As a researcher, Dr. Mckenzie says his solution is to foster social programs that heighten what he calls “Mental Capital.”Mental capital has three components: IQ (academic intelligence), EQ (emotional intelligence), and mental health. While IQ can be learned in school, EQ and mental health thrive in extracurricular activities.During the summer when school is out, Mckenzie says that children of low-income families lose these skills. He added that children of high-income families take family trips, go to summer camps, and spend time at libraries, while children of low-income families often miss out on these opportunities.Yvonne Goulbourne, Principal of Driftwood Secondary School, said she is narrowing in on children’s mental health.“Mental health is affecting a lot of our kids,” she says. “We’re seeing it happen in school.”Dr. Mckenzie references “The Three Cities Within Toronto,” a report by J. David Hulchanski, a University of Toronto professor, in his talk. The report suggests that there are three cities within Toronto. City 1, the wealthiest parts of the city, have far better access to basic health services, including mental health  than city 3, Toronto's lowest income neighbourhoods, which includes Jane and Finch. According to the report, the population of low income neighbourhoods in Toronto went from 19 per cent in 1970 to 53 per cent in 2005.Dr. Mackenzie says this contributes to an increased number of Torontonians living with mental health issues who do not have easy access to resources or treatment.With the widening gap between Jane and Finch and the rich downtown core, Dr. Mackenzie says that resources from downtown Toronto need to be carried over.People often confuse mental health with mental illness, says Dr. Mckenzie. The fundamental difference, he says, is that while people with mental health issues can spring back from depression if they get help, people with mental illness cannot.“Everyone says that mental health runs in your genes,” says Dr. Mckenzie. “Mental illness runs in your genes.”Parenting is a key determiner of mental health in children, he says, but when good guidance is absent, that’s when troubles arise.“The suicide rates are higher because kids are working out who they are,” he says.Dr. Mckenzie’s work is a part of the solution for mental health among the next generation of children in marginalized areas. The work he does for CAMH consists of conducting surveys in schools, working to change services, talking to youth and adults about mental health, and researching genetics. But he never likes to do the same thing day to day.“I’m a neophile: I like new stuff,” he says. “There are three components to my job: clinical work, policy work, and research. But what I like best about my job is making a difference.”