Reaching out to children and youth in crisis

The Navigator Program

Little boy crying
Reaching out to children and youth in crisis

A grade one student has severe anxiety, a teenager addicted to drugs is living on the street, a depressed adolescent fantasizes about suicide – these children are all in crisis. They are just a few examples of the many children and youth living in Oakville who are facing serious mental health issues. How can these young people get help before it is too late?

“Mental illnesses are more common than you might think among children and teens. Statistics state that one in five Ontarians under the age of 18 struggle with some mental health issues,” says Dr. Alan Brown, Medical Director of the Mental Health Program at Halton Healthcare Services (HHS). “Unfortunately, mental health services are somewhat fragmented with various agencies offering similar programs – and this is often a barrier to care. Families do not know where to turn to access help and consequently, kids don’t always get treatment in time. Kids in crisis can’t afford to wait weeks or months for help.”

HHS introduced the Navigator Program in 2011 to help children in distress throughout the Halton region. As its name implies, this program is comprised of a group of specially trained social workers and child/youth counsellors who help these children and their families navigate the healthcare system. The Navigators are assigned to children and adolescents in need, following a crisis visit to one of HHS’ Emergency Departments, after a referral from a family physician to Child and Youth Outpatient Services, or following discharge from the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Inpatient Service (CAPIS).

“A Navigator intervenes with the child and their family immediately to help sort out their needs and provide them with the tools required to manage the crisis and sustain wellness until a longer term treatment is established,” explains Tinga Heusser, Halton Healthcare Navigator Program. “The Navigator connects the child to the services they need and accompanies them to their various appointments with psychiatrists, social workers and group sessions. They follow the child and family until the crisis is stabilized and supports are put in place.”

“While the Navigator Program does not have a waiting list, some of the programs these kids need to access do. As a bridging service, Navigators play a vital role in supporting these children and their families while they are waiting to access programs or services,” adds Ms Heusser. “With the HHS Mental Health Program and the various community services available to us, we have resources that we can tap to help these kids get back on track.”

Teenage Boy Crying

Anyone wishing to donate to the Navigator Program should contact the Oakville Hospital Foundation at 905-338-4642. Photo credit: orangeacid / Foter / CC BY

“Young people in crisis often feel trapped and need help finding their way out. Many are not attending school because they are unable to cope with social situations in the classroom or on the playground,” says Ms Heusser. “We work with the school to organize programs, get the children additional resources, and support the school and the teachers so they are better equipped to accommodate and manage the child’s needs. Often, these additional resources end up benefiting a number of children at the school who also may be struggling with similar challenges.”

Navigators also provide a safety net for these children and their families. They advocate for and help them address any imminent needs related to housing, school and safety. They also support both the child and their families with counselling and link them to community services or resources.

“Early intervention is vital and can be a real game changer for these kids,” explains Dr. Brown. “Mental health issues do not go away. It is important that they learn how to cope with their issues while they are young so they can appropriately manage them as adults.”

“The introduction of the Navigator Program at Halton Healthcare has transformed the way we are helping children and youth in our community,” concludes Dr. Brown. “Thanks to our many collaborative partnerships with various social and mental health services, Navigators have the capacity to treat those in need and help bridge any gaps so these children do not fall through the cracks.”

The Navigator Program serves youth and their families throughout Halton Region. To date the Program has helped over 350 children and adolescents in crisis. Some of these children were homeless, some had addictions problems, many were not attending school – all were in crisis. The Navigators are helping them find their way.


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