‘I believe that this youth hub will save lives’
Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub officially opens its doors amid fanfare
By Jenn Watt
The importance of mental health and addictions services and a dedicated support system for Haliburton County’s youth was brought into stark relief at the official opening ceremony for the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub on Thursday as service providers, youth advocates, community organizers and users of the space told their stories.
A web of services, lacking coordination, with gaps in coverage have left some youth and young adults feeling unsupported during times of crisis.
“I remember wait lists and referrals and hostile rooms and hearing the same questions over and over again from different people,” said Joey Varga, 19, a member of the youth hub’s steering committee. “I remember white walls and fluorescent lights. I remember feeling like there wasn’t anything for me unless there was an emergency.”
Joey and her mother Talitha told the large audience assembled at the Haliburton Legion about their family’s experiences with the mental health system and about the struggles of Talitha’s son and Joey’s older brother, Morgan, who died by suicide in 2017.
“In a system that can make young people feel neglected until they are in a high-risk crisis situation, many of us fall through the cracks. My brother Morgan was one of those people,” Joey said. “Morgan was experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia and was in an environment that didn’t make him feel safe or comfortable. His only option in the end was the hospital and that wasn’t enough. On Aug. 3, 2017, Morgan took his own life. He was 19 years old.
“It felt like an explosion that caused the ground to disintegrate underneath my and my family’s feet and we needed urgent help. Morgan saw problems in the world and wanted to change them. He needed things to change and after we lost him, my family and I more than ever felt that we needed to do something that would make a difference in the system.”
Joey Varga speaks at the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub’s grand opening event on Thursday, Feb. 6 at the Royal Canadian Legion in Haliburton./DARREN LUM Staff
The family had just moved to the Haliburton Highlands in 2016 and Talitha said she was struggling following the upheaval of divorce and a move from Saskatchewan.
Following hospitalization, it was difficult to find after-care for Morgan, she said, describing a system of disconnected services that didn’t have anything geared to young adults 19 and older.
“It felt like Morgan didn’t have an umbrella or a safety net and neither did I. And on Aug. 3, 2017, I lost my beautiful boy and our world fell out from under us,” she said.
After Morgan’s death, members of the family put their efforts into improving services for youth in Haliburton County, joining with a group of service providers including Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Parents, and Haliburton Highlands Health Services in applying for youth wellness hub funding from the provincial government.
Over the last two years, grant funding has arrived from various places – including the provincial Ministry of Health – and community members have rallied to secure the space at the former Lighthouse Church on Dysart Avenue in Haliburton, fundraise for and do renovations, arrange for staffing and begin programming.
Talitha said when she goes to the youth hub today, she can imagine how Morgan could have benefited from its services. She could imagine him connecting with other young people, playing video games and eating snacks, learning to play an instrument and building trust with the staff, who offer access to mental health counselling and employment services.
“It is too late for Morgan, but I believe that this youth hub will save lives,” she said.
Talitha Varga receives a hug after she shared her insight of the importance of what support could mean for youth./DARREN LUM Staff
Funding has come from several sources, with a large infusion from the Ministry of Health, which contributed more than $500,000 over three years with an additional $670,000 coming from the Youth Wellness Hub Ontario project at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. An additional $68,000 has come from donations and grants.
Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott attended the opening along with Minister of Infrastructure and local MPP Laurie Scott.
Elliott said that the province’s Conservative government had identified mental health and addictions as a priority and was on the cusp of releasing an action plan to make sure those who need help receive it, no matter where in Ontario they live.
Responding to a question from the Echo, Elliott confirmed that funding will be ongoing for the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub.
“There is no end date [to funding],” she said. “This is a valuable resource in this community that is obviously quite clearly needed, that the community wants. There’s been so much community involvement in this. It’s going to continue.”
The audience erupted in cheers and applause.
Point in Time executive director Marg Cox applauds after hearing Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott announce the province would provide funding in perpetuity. /DARREN LUM Staff
Elliott said that she has heard from Ontarians that better access to services needs to be made available.
“Ontarians are telling us that they need access to reliable, standardized, high quality mental health services when and where they need them,” she said. “They’re telling us they need to expand and provide improved access to services and to provide innovative solutions such as the one that we’re seeing here in Haliburton.”
Scott said she has watched the progress in the community to develop the hub and congratulated Marg Cox, executive director of Point in Time and one of the key organizers of the initiative.
“Marg … I can’t tell you how proud I am of our whole community and what you’ve done today,” she said.
Other speakers included Dylan Robichaud from MP Jamie Schmale’s office, Joanna Henderson of Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario, Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts, Haliburton Highlands Health Services president and CEO Carolyn Plummer and Marg Cox, who acted as MC. A group of young people performed a YMCA-inspired song titled YWHO, which stands for Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario.
Another speaker, who identified herself as a local mother, pointed out the barriers youth face today, especially those living in a rural area like Haliburton.
“My children don’t have the luxury of being able to take public transportation to and from activities and part-time jobs. ... This can be profoundly isolating, especially for teens. They are unable to access medical services as easily as children in urban areas due to the lack of available resources and their inability to access the limited resources available,” she said, pointing out that walk-in clinics aren’t open as frequently on evenings and weekends.
Ontario's Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott came to Haliburton for the Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub on Thursday, Feb. 6. /DARREN LUM Staff
She said her family’s doctor is a two-hour drive away, but being added to the waiting list in Haliburton would require her and her family members to de-roster from their current physician.
She pointed out that internet access isn’t available to all youth to the same extent, meaning they have to find computers elsewhere to do their homework or look for jobs.
“The challenges I’ve mentioned have presented themselves most acutely in the lives of my family,” she said. “In the span of two years, two of my children made convincing attempts at suicide. I can say with certainty and with gratitude and conviction that without Point in Time and the caring and dedicated staff we met along our journey, my children would not have come out the other side of the horror and despair of their mental illnesses.”
She said that resources have been made available and counsellors have kept in contact with the family to ensure the children succeed. She said she has a child who uses the youth hub “almost every day it’s open” and has found a non-judgmental atmosphere with kind staff, food to eat, internet access and other youth to socialize with. The woman said she was pleased that sexual health and addictions counselling is also available, for young people who do not feel comfortable going to their parents or caregivers with their concerns.
“This positive, productive and progressive space is on the verge of positively impacting a generation of rural youth that may have otherwise fallen through the cracks,” she said.
The Haliburton County Youth Wellness Hub is located at 12 Dysart Ave., Haliburton and can be found online at pointintime.ca/youth/haliburton-youth-wellness-hub, on Instagram at HaliCountyYouthHub, Facebook at Facebook.com/HaliCountyYouthHub or by calling 705-457-5345.