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‘A Lot at Risk’: Child Advocate Suggests Collaboration to Address Youth Mental Health

February 1, 2024 2:37 PM | The Canadian Press

By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

Sherry Gott

Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, Sherry Gott, is photographed at her office in Winnipeg, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has yet to tackle systemic causes of youth suicide and addictions despite attempting to address dozens of recommendations put forth by the province’s child and youth advocate, a report from her office suggests.

Sherry Gott, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, released her annual report card Thursday examining the province’s implementation of her office’s recommendations since 2018.

It found overall compliance has improved over the past year, but this doesn’t always create tangible improvements for children, young adults and their families.

“We have observed a large discrepancy between the overall progress that is being reported on paper and the lived realities, well-being and experiences of young people and their families,” said Gott.

“It would be easy to point fingers at the implementing bodies and place the blame slowly on them, but that wouldn’t be fair, nor would it be accurate. Fulfilling children’s rights is a shared responsibility, and we fall short of it. Therefore, it is a shared failure.”

The release of the report, titled “Moving the Dial on Children’s Rights in Manitoba,” marks the fourth time the advocate’s office has tracked progress on its recommendations to public bodies.

Since 2018, the advocate has made 80 recommendations to various government departments, including Families, Justice, Education and Mental Health Services.

The report found some “encouraging” indicators of progress — 32 per cent of recommendations have been completed, while nearly all have seen partial movement.

At the same time, work on some recommendations have stalled or are at a standstill, says the report.

Gott said she’s most concerned about recommendations for improving mental health, addictions and disability services.

“This is unacceptable. Delays in implementing these recommendations are particularly alarming because they directly relate to several of the most pressing children’s rights issues that we are observing in the province right now,” she said.

“Children, youth and young adults are suffering. They’re losing their lives. And we must move as quickly as possible to address them. This isn’t just a moral necessity, it is a legal one.”

Data from Gott’s office shows that during the 2022-2023 fiscal year it saw an “alarming increase” in suicides and overdoses.

Suicides accounted for 37 out of the 265 child death notifications it received during that period, which was the highest number ever reported by the office. There were also 18 overdose deaths reported during that time.

Gott said programs and mental health supports need to be evidence-based, culturally appropriate and easily accessible.

“We took a look at what is available, and there’s the bare minimum available for children, youth and young adults to access.”

The province announced this week it is increasing funding to programs that support mentorship for Indigenous youth and suicide prevention across Manitoba.

Gott commended the move and said, while it’s too early to review the progress of the current NDP government, which came into power in the fall, she hopes to work with them in a collaborative manner.

Moving forward, she said, recommendations will be more effective and feasible if developed through a process that engages public bodies, service providers and youth.

Gott added her office is also evaluating its own method of developing and monitoring recommendations, with the goal of creating “concrete and lasting” change.

“There is a lot at risk … the (government) has said children need to live to their 18th birthday. I think they need to live beyond that,” said Gott.

Families and Accessibility Minister Nahanni Fontaine and Mental Health Minister Bernadette Smith did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

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