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Tips for Navigating the child and Youth Mental Health System in Ontario:

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In Ontario, our mental health system is complex and difficult to navigate. Many people have different experiences while trying to get the help their child needs. In this post I am going to offer some tips and resources for trying to access community or private mental health services. This information is based on my experience working in community and hospital child and adolescent mental health settings.

  1. Know the central referral agency: Most regions offer a centralized access point to services. This means that you need to complete an intake with this agency, and they will refer you to the most appropriate service for what you are seeking support for. It is important to note that these agencies have waitlists and will often refer you to another agency with a waiting list. When working with the central referral agency, they often will try to reach out to you once or twice, and if they do not hear back, you will have to call back and re-refer yourself (meaning you will most likely be placed at the bottom of the list). Some of these agencies across Ontario are Contact Hamilton (Hamilton), ASN ROCK (Halton), and Front Door (Cambridge).

  2. Start with your family doctor: This is an important place to start when it comes to accessing services. If your family doctor is a part of a family health team, you may have access to counselling and/or psychiatry support. If your family doctor is not part of a family health team, they may have partnerships with certain counselling agencies or local child psychiatrists that are accepting clients.

  3. Know when to visit the hospital: hospital mental health is meant to be a place to come in the event of an emergency, meaning that your child is in imminent danger to themselves or others. Coming to the hospital does not guarantee that you will see a psychiatrist or be connected to services. Many people often must wait many hours before they can see a social worker, or emergency doctor who will often decide the next step (which could include discharge, admission to the mental health unit, or transfer to a children’s hospital).

  4. Low-cost therapy options: If you are a family that has low/no coverage for mental health supports it can feel frustrating having to wait for services. One option could be looking into low-cost therapy options. Two websites that advertise for low-cost therapy is the Affordable Therapy Network and Open Path. There are many wonderful qualifying psychotherapists who have these options available and are supervised by a certified therapist. Some agencies also have pro-bono spots that they make available. It may be worth calling around to a few private therapy offices and asking this information.

  5. Indigenous supports: If you identify as Indigenous and have a status card, you have access to specialized funding through the government of Ontario. This coverage is called Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB). All you must do is seek clinicians who accept this type of funding. You can find these therapists on the NIHB website, your local indigenous agency, or a google search. There are some limitations to this and it may be worth calling the NIHB number to seek more information for your situation.

  6. Crisis Hotline – Many areas have a crisis line that you can call in an emergency. If you are unsure of resources, or whether you should visit the hospital, the local crisis line is a great resource to problem solve and seek support.

  7. Where to find private therapists: Many private therapists use different platforms to advertise their services. Some of these platforms include Psychology Today, Therapy Tribe, or Greenspace. These are great platforms to begin the search as you can specify your location, type of problem you are dealing with, and any identity criteria you may have.

  8. Know who does what: many people get confused by the many different types of practitioners they could be referred too. I want to briefly outline the difference between a few. The first is a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists often are responsible for diagnoses and medication suggestions/management. They sometimes make recommendations for a type of therapy that may be helpful, but they will not be doing the therapy themselves. Psychiatrists require a doctor referral and are covered by OHIP. The second practitioner a psychologist. Psychologists often will perform diagnostic and psycho-educational assessments. These assessments are then used to guide therapy treatment. Some psychologists do treatment with clients, while others may refer out. Psychologists are not covered by OHIP and often require private pay, however, some work for community agencies and are therefore covered. Social workers and psychotherapists are the third category or practitioners. These service providers often do the therapy portion of treatment. These providers work both in private and community settings. It’s important to check your insurance for what is covered under the plan, as some will only cover either social work or psychotherapists, and not both.

There is no doubt that accessing mental health supports is a challenging experience for many, especially when not knowing where to go for support. If you have any other tips or questions, you can add them in the comment section below.

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