County approves $460,000 over two years to fund youth hub staffing

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Wellington County will allocate $460,000 over two years to fund two positions for the Integrated Youth Services Network (IYSN) of Wellington and Guelph.

The funding was allocated in response to alarming statistics about youth mental health issues in the county.

“Youth are dying in Guelph and Wellington County – our suicide rates are 2.5 per cent higher than the provincial average, remaining the second leading cause of death for youth 15 to 24 and, heartbreakingly, suicide is the leading cause of death among children 10-14,” IYSN officials state in a letter requesting the funding.

Problems are growing at an exponential rate due to the pandemic, the letter adds.

“We have seen a 242% spike in overdose deaths since the onset of the pandemic, a 40% increased demand for mental health services in our region since the start of the new year and Here 24/7 is managing over 7,000 calls a month for mental health support and 35% increase in demand,” the letter states.

“There are 46,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 26 living in Wellington County and Guelph. Based on current trends we are witnessing, over half are in need of the IYSN services, now.”

The network is set to open three youth hubs in Wellington County – in Palmerston, Erin and Fergus – that provide youths access to over 30 organizations from one location.

“As soon as the lockdown is lifted youth can expect that every single day, our hubs will provide them with guidance and support for the future,” IYSN officials state in their letter.

Supports accessible through the hubs include:

  • education and career support;
  • health care;
  • housing services;
  • counselling and peer-to-peer programs; and
  • recreational spaces to “just hang out.”

The network’s request outlines an immediate need for $230,000 annually for two years to fund social worker and clinician positions.

“Wellington County needs a dedicated clinician, as a foundational resource, to build the service delivery model and work in collaboration with the three existing sites. This is about getting mental health supports on the ground and offering walk-in counselling now,” IYSN officials state.

The clinician would oversee the walk-in services, work with the network’s 30 community partners and be supported by the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington.

The social worker would provide walk-in services in all Wellington County locations in collaboration with network partners.

“Our partners have agreed to deliver walk-in services, but the demand is great. We need to offer as many walk-in services as possible,” IYSN officials note.

Councillor Chris White, who chairs the county’s administration, finance and human resources (AFHR) committee, advised council the recommendation to approve the funding came from that committee due to timing.

“This typically would have gone to the social services committee, didn’t get there on time, and it was felt because the opening is coming first week of June … we didn’t want to wait a month,” White explained.

“This is important funding to provide hubs for youth mental health and we all know how important that is coming out of the pandemic.”

White told council the funding would initially come from COVID-19 Safe Restart Program funding provided by the provincial and federal governments “and the rest of the balance will go into the normal budget moving forward.

Councillor Gregg Davidson said he was “flabbergasted” by the numbers provided in the IYSN report.

“A 40% increase in demand for mental health services in our region since the start of the new year. Seven thousand calls a month from Here 24 7 … 141 children in Wellington county waiting for counselling and treatment services, when there was no waiting list prior to the pandemic,” said Davidson.

“Those numbers are just showing how this pandemic has really impacted our youth.

“And part of that of course is not being in school or being with their friends and having to be in the home all the time. It’s just very important that we support these youth,” he added.

Councillor Diane Ballantyne said, “I support this funding unreservedly.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but my position is that the loss and trauma to youth during the pandemic is second only to the loss of life that the elderly have experienced.”

Ballantyne, a teacher with the Upper Grand District School Board, added, “I see the trauma to young people every single day.

“It is overwhelming. It is extraordinary. And while we might wish to argue on a principle that this is funding and mental health support that should be provided by the provincial government, and I wouldn’t disagree with the principle, the fact of the matter is that the funding isn’t there at this point.

“We have the opportunity to fill in some of the cracks, to help our young people.”

“I’m with councillor Ballantyne,” said councillor Doug Breen.

“There’s details of ‘where’s the money coming from’, ‘is this the best program?’ I don’t care.

“Let’s throw some money at the wall and make something stick because they (young people) are in serious, serious trouble. And if you’re not around kids right now, you may not realize just how bad it really is.”

Councillor David Anderson, who chairs the county’s social services committee, said he agrees with other councillors about the need for the IYSN services.

“I totally believe that this is just a start … COVID-19 has been around for a while and youth are really feeling this and I think this is just a beginning of many, many more requests,” Anderson stated.

While recognizing the time crunch that led to the IYNS request being presented through the AFHR committee, Anderson pointed out social services expertise could be helpful in the process.

“The funding on this right now currently doesn’t meet anything in social services as far as federal, provincial funding, but we have our staff that have worked with the federal and provincial government in many, many venues,” said Anderson.

“And even though this is a ministry of health funding program, this program also ties into childcare, it ties into housing, it ties into Ontario Works. And that’s one of the criteria that this is essential that this comes through social services, so that we can have our expertise, and our expert staff, deal with situations like this.”

Adding, “There’s a good chance that we could get federal funding for this,” Anderson requested the motion be amended to add a provision that the program be brought back to the social services committee for review in six months’ time.

Councillor Steve O’Neil noted a special meeting of the social services committee could have been called to deal with the request, rather than sending it to another committee.

“I don’t believe there was any reason this couldn’t be brought to a special social services committee in the last week,” he said.

“I’m sure it would still go through, as well it should, but I don’t know why we didn’t do it that way.”

Councillor Jeff Duncan pointed out that unlike many social services programs, the requested funding is being used only in Wellington County.

“This money is going just into Wellington County, unlike quite a few programs that are through social services committee that are shared funding in delivery of service for the city of Guelph,” said Duncan.

“After they, hopefully, set up and get things rolling here, they’re going to be going to the city to try to expand.”

Councillor Mary Lloyd said, “I have big concerns that we are doing this with taxpayer dollars.

“I was really happy to hear that the treasurer feels that it’s eligible under the COVID recovery funding and I’m really happy about that because when we collect property taxes and our intention is to fix roads – that’s part of our number one mandate – it’s hard to divert money elsewhere and not have the ire of taxpayers.”

Lloyd also expressed concern about issues not being handled by the proper committee.

“The reason for that is that committee has the expertise. But I also foresee many, many community groups, many, many non-for-profits, that provide services, coming forward looking for funding,” Lloyd said.

She noted she has heard from people who are also concerned about children younger than the 12-to-26 age range supported through the IYNS programs.

“They are not learning how to go for a bicycle ride to the park and play publicly with children, other children of their own age. Learning how to go out and feel confident and maybe having a sleep over at a friend’s,” she stated.

“I’m talking about the kids that are younger, the kids that are in Grade 2,3, 4 or 5 that are not going to be able to go into these youth centres, or feel comfortable in youth centres because of an older demographic of kids in there. But they’re suffering too, and so I foresee that we’re going to be asked for other programs, for money.”

However, she added, “I’m in favour of the funding because of the way it’s been demonstrated, but I do struggle with the way this process is being handled.”

“I agree, councillor Lloyd, we’re not covering everybody,” said councillor George Bridge.

“These youth hubs, these buildings and what’s going into them, have all been donated. A lot of money has been donated. I think there’s a real need out there. This is a little quick, but as you can see from the report, unfortunately, we haven’t got time.”

Bridge, who noted the youth hubs are set to open soon, said, “If we open them up and we don’t have people there, and kids get ticked off real quick, and they’re going to say, ‘Well, I went, I couldn’t get help,’ so we want to make sure we try to get the help there and that’s why we had to do it.”

White said he felt the process worked in the end.

“We’ve had to jump into this because of the timing of the openings, but that’s how the county is designed. It’s a failsafe. At the end of the day you have [AFHR – always the last committee meeting of the month] if something falls through the cracks,” he said.

“And ultimately, this stuff goes to county council. The committee this went through did not approve this finally, that gets approved here.”

White added, “I think it’s a pretty good flexible system that allows us to be nimble. I think we need to remember that one of the things we did really well at the beginning of this pandemic, was the Keep Well (business loan program), right? That was outside the box.

“We took property tax money and put it into the loan program, and we got it out there months ahead of the federal government.”

“This does not prevent any other programs. This does not prevent any ask for the federal government to come back and subsidize or refinance this program later. This is … an emergency scenario.”

Warden Kelly Linton said he did not expect the deviation from normal practice to become the norm.

“I can assure you, from my position, that this is not going to open the door to bypass committees to get [AFHR],” said Linton.

“This is a very unique and very urgent situation. That is not going to be something that is normal.”

A motion to approve the funding, including Anderson’s amendment to report back to the social services committee in six months, was unanimously approved by council.