Anxiety is the most common mental health problem among young people in Maple Ridge.
Already the new Youth Wellness Centre in Maple Ridge has referred 100 young people to its resident child psychologist, Dr. Matthew Chow.
Often, he said, the signs and symptoms may be minor enough that parents and teachers are wondering “is there really a problem here, or not?
“And we’re saying: ‘Bring that person in. Let’s take a look and let’s see what’s going on,”’ said Chow. “And if we think there’s something more major going on, we’re going to recommend some treatment. And if it’s a minor thing that just needs a little bit of tweaking, we’re going to recommend some things to help with that, as well.”
He explained that “tweaking” means better coping strategies to deal with typical causes of anxiety, like exam stress, transitions from elementary to high school, coping with stress at home and transitions from childhood to adolescence with increasing responsibilities.
“Basic, common things all human beings go through, but unfortunately some of us encounter higher levels of stress – and distress – than usual, and have difficulty coping, and may not have the skills to overcome that,” said Chow. “So we try to teach people, and refer them to people who can teach these skills.”
He said untreated anxiety can have serious consequences. Drugs and alcohol use is common in youth with untreated anxiety, as kids learn from friends or on the Internet what drugs could offer some relief.
“If I use this drug, it’s going to help me with my anxiety, it’s going to help me sleep at night, I’ll have fewer panic attacks, and it’s going to help me with my mood,” said Chow. “And so they try to self-medicate – try to deal with the problem on their own.
“They’re really just trying to get better, and live a productive life, but they get trapped with these illicit substances that end up causing more problems than they solve.”
He said treatment usually starts with a conversation between school staff and parents, and a referral from a family physician.
He said there are often physical symptoms, that typically affect both the head and the stomach: headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, stomach aches or indigestion that can cause a young person to miss school.
As kids get older, parents will hear them saying “I’m stressed out,” “this is too much,” and “I’m getting overwhelmed.”
Anxiety is also among the most treatable of mental health issues, Chow said. He hesitates to call it an illness or disorder.
“It really is a phase for a lot of kids that they need some coping strategies to deal with,” he added.
Treatment is a skills-based approach.
“It’s like riding a bicycle – once you learn to do that as a kid, you’re good for life.”
Those who need it can get more intensive counselling, recommended natural health supplements or medication, but those are not the mainstays of treatment.
At a recent open house to celebrate and introduce the newly established Youth Wellness Centre, Chow said he was attracted to the community initiative.
“The Maple Ridge model really turns the whole mental health model on its head,” and he appreciates it for a couple of reasons.
The first is how it started – as a grassroots initiative with community members and leaders identifying a need, approaching the city, raising the money and pulling it together.
“Usually in the health care system, anytime you try to innovate like this, it turns into a bureaucratic quagmire, where there are a lot of competing interests, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of red tape, and things slow right down and become really expensive,” he said. “This is a lightweight model that is community driven, grassroots driven, and it’s really responsive.”
He also likes the proactive approach.
“It’s an early intervention model, where we’re purposely trying to find and identify young people with mental health problems, as early as possible in the trajectory of their mental illness.”
Chow started working at the centre on Saturdays, but has added a Thursday evening drop-in. The Vancouver-based professional’s involvement helped to launch the new facility.
“That really gave us the confidence to start the centre,” said Treena Innes, executive director of the Division of Family Practice.
Also working out of the centre is Jason Somerset, a child and youth advocate who connects youth with services in the community that can help them. That might be counselling through Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows Community Services, the child and youth walk-in days at the Wellness Centre on Thursdays from 4-6 p.m., or even the North Fraser Therapeutic Riding Association.
Kelly Lavoie is an registered nurse who is at the centre from 4-7 p.m. on Tuesdays and 4-6 p.m. on Thursdays, who brings youth information about sexual health.
And there is a doctor’s office staffed by local physicians from 4-6 p.m. on Thursdays, so youth can have low-barrier access to a doctor other than their family general practitioner.
Innes said the next challenge is a stable source of funding for the centre, which has been founded on generous donations.
They needed $36,000 to get the program off the ground, and the fundraising effort garnered $46,000.
Notably, there were donations of $5,000 from Carl Van Allen and Dr. Bitt Bright, and a donation in the $3,000 to $5,000 range from Dr. Biju Matthew. The city also put up $10,000.
Innes said the centre can operate on existing funds until May, but a target of $90,000 in funds will allow for a year of services, including a full-time advocate.