Growing up is hard for anyone. But for inner city youth struggling with social issues or an undiagnosed or untreated illness, even the most basic things such as housing, relationships, and employment are jeopardized. Finding help when youth need it, conveniently and in a youth-friendly environment, can be difficult. Even impossible.
Despite their complex mental health needs, youth face low levels of basic health care access, especially care that is youth-focused. Statistics show that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness and addiction begin very early in life, typically by age 14. Seventy-five percent of all mental illness will present by the age of 25. Without help, these illnesses can lead to homelessness, substance abuse and an adulthood of hardship.
Responding to Crisis
In 2007, a group of psychiatrists at St. Paul’s Hospital began looking for ways to help youth before and after a crisis. For Dr. Mathias and his team, the path to better health outcomes for youth began with an entirely new approach: the Inner City Youth Program.
“It came out of a group of psychiatrists seeing that youth were coming into the emergency room at St. Paul’s with profound mental illness as well as addiction issues, and being discharged from the emergency room with really no follow up,” said Dr. Steve Mathias, medical director of the Inner City Youth Program.
It was clear that youth needed better access to mental health and substance abuse care. But there were numerous social factors, such as homelessness, unemployment, poverty, sexual identity issues and lack of education that needed to be addressed. Many youth had become tenuously housed after leaving foster care, or after becoming estranged from their families due to behaviors related to undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.
We need to get ahead of the problem, ahead of the crisis. So we provide services to the younger population, when they tend to be less crisis-driven.
— Dr. Steve Mathias, ICY Medical Director
The ICY team provides care that looks beyond the typical clinical concerns to see the strengths of youth, and give them support to become independent and autonomous. To have meaningful and lasting impact, youth needed help with relationships, education, employment and housing resources–all of which support healthy living. The Inner City Youth team’s care is built on establishing a positive relationship with youth, and charting a path from healing to health to wellness that includes treatment options, as well as housing help, peer support, and classes that teach valuable life skills.
ICY began as a small group of concerned psychiatrists. Today, they have grown into an inter-disciplinary team of over 20 staff including doctors, nurse practitioners, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists, rehabilitation assistants, recreation and peer support workers.
They are the entire reason why I was even able to go to school. They were so involved. I get anxiety about the dumbest things. So if I needed someone to come and hold my hand, they would totally do that.
— Lee Johnson
Working with a case manager, psychiatrists and other members of the interdisciplinary team, youth plan a path to wellness together, which may include mindfulness therapy, seeing a family doctor, meeting with a peer support worker who has similar lived experiences or going on a recreational outing.
By taking a collaborative approach to youth-focused health, the Inner City Youth Program is creating new thinking and treatments, improving access to health care, and leading research that will improve health for youth in the province of British Columbia.