TORONTO — Canada’s global reputation as a healthy place to raise children is belied by statistics showing strikingly high rates of suicide, child abuse and struggles with mental health, a new report suggested Tuesday.
Health markers covering everything from infant mortality to obesity and poverty rates paint a troubling picture of child welfare in Canada, according to the report compiled by Children First Canada and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.
The study, which analyzes data from major research organizations including Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute of Health Information, said all orders of government need to do more to ensure that children benefit from the country’s overall wealth and prosperity.
“Whether we’re talking infant mortality or accidents or mental health concerns, all these statistics are deeply disturbing,” said Sara Austin, lead director of Children First. “Canada’s ranked the fifth-most prosperous nation in the world, yet when it comes to the well-being of children, we fall far behind,” she said. “There’s a big disconnect between the well-being of our children and the well-being of our nation.”
Austin said this disconnect has been acknowledged in some international circles, pointing to a UNICEF ranking of 41 Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development countries that placed Canada 25th on the list when assessing for children’s well-being.
The various research agencies included in the latest report have documented many troubling markers of kids health over the years, Austin said, with mental health emerging as an area of increasing urgency.
The report found the number of mental health-related hospitalizations among people aged five to 24 had soared 66 per cent over the last decade, while the number of hospitalizations jumped 55 per cent over the same period.
Austin said there were few stats focusing specifically on those 18 or under, which she highlighted as one of many shortcomings in Canada’s efforts to keep tabs on children’s health.
Ontario recorded by far the highest number of mental health-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations, the report found. In 2016 alone, for instance, 16,291 children were hospitalized, more than double the number recorded in Quebec, which ranked second.
The numbers represent the continuation of a well-established trend according to Dr. Peter Szatmari, Chief of the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative between Sick Kids Hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto.
Despite documenting high prevalence of mental health issues in kids as far back as 1987, he said Canada has taken comparatively little action to get at the root of the problem.
Szatmari said the spike in hospital visits is “out of proportion to any global trend.”
While it can be seen as a sign that mental health stigma is diminishing, he also views it as a red flag for ongoing shortfalls in the way mental health is handled in schools and primary health centres.
“We’re not giving kids the tools to cope with these things when they’re minor,” he said. “We’re a crisis-driven health care system, we’re not a public health system.”
Austin said kids are increasingly seeking help in hospitals due to lack of other options in their communities.
But the data shows that a growing number are ultimately resorting to suicide. Austin said suicide is the second-most common cause of death among children, adding that Canada’s child suicide rate is among the top five in the world.
Szatmari noted that Canada is the only G-7 nation not to have a national suicide prevention strategy in place, adding jurisdictions that have adopted one, such as Quebec, have seen positive results.
“These issues are all interconnected,” Austin said. “…(they) all tie back to lots of related causes around poverty, around abuse, and the systemic underinvestment in the health and well-being of our children.”
Austin said child abuse figures are particularly striking — one in three Canadians report suffering some form of child abuse before turning 16 — calling them a “public health crisis.”
Canada’s data on infant mortality also sounded alarm bells for Austin, who said the country’s performance put it in the bottom third of developed nations.
The national average of five deaths per 1,000 people placed Canada 30th in a ranking of 44 OECD countries, she said.
That average is unevenly distributed across the country, she said, adding the low rate of 3.5 per 1,000 in British Columbia is more than offset by the rate of 17.7 per 1,000 documented in Nunavut.
University of British Columbia researcher Sorcha Collins, who co-wrote a paper on infant mortality in Nunavut, said the causes for the high figure are numerous and complex.
While the territory’s extremely low birth rate means it’s disproportionately affected by every individual infant death, she also said numerous social and systemic factors contribute to the problem. They include air quality, infection rates, sound housing, availability of nutritious food and access to medical care, which can be scarce in Nunavut’s remote communities.
Collins said that while researchers have identified several causes, coming up with viable solutions is considerably more complex.
“If you asked different people in the North what the greatest impact would be, they probably would all give you a different answer in terms of what they’ve been experiencing,” Collins said. “I don’t know what the answer is in terms of improving things.”
The Children First report does not propose concrete solutions, but does contain some recommendations for the federal government to address systemic shortcomings across the country.
Austin said Ottawa should set up a children’s commission, disclose all children-related spending to the public, and establish a children’s charter of rights.