Youth worker, Krista Dean* is overworked and stressed due to the lack of resources available when dealing with youth struggling with mental illness.
While she is a trained Child and Youth Worker, Dean’s training did not include how to properly support people with mental health struggles. Working at Choices Youth Shelter, housing up to twenty youth at one time, support and resources are critical to success. However, resources and support are not something that is easy to find when it comes to mental health.
As an employee, Dean was responsible for conducting intake appointments and one-on-one conversations with the youth staying at the shelter. There is only one employee for every twenty students on any given shift, and Dean found this part of her job particularly difficult.
“The staff can only do so much because they have to try to run the shelter and make dinner and make sure it’s clean, make sure everyone is following the rules. So really, when is there time to do counseling and stuff like that?” she explains. “Trying to meet twenty kids in one night is not happening.”
“And when I met with them it was supposed to be for case work, like helping them try to find jobs and stuff but a lot of the time the counseling would turn into, ‘I have problems with drugs, I need to find AA or I need to get counseling.’ So you’d help them do referrals and everything like that, and again, there’s not much of that in Orangeville so it was like pulling teeth trying to get them into programs like that.”
Too often she saw youth coming to the shelter clearly struggling. “I think that just about every single one of them had some type of mental health situation they were struggling with and that was either the reason they were kicked out or it was a new thing because living on the street can cause trauma,” she said.
Without a mental health institution or support staff in Orangeville or surrounding area, Dean often found herself talking to the teenagers who needed help, but she was unsatisfied with what she could provide. Dean explained that a typical scenario “was really just a lot of sitting and listening to them and being a support. That’s mainly how I made the connection with them and once I was able to make that connection and they felt safe coming to me and they felt accepted then they would come to me about everything. It was literally talking about the day to talking about family to talking about something that happened ten years ago, to talking about the issues that they think they’re going to have in a week. It was a lot. A lot to take in.”
While she was too familiar with the strain it caused, Dean knew it was what the kids needed. “They need me to sit down and talk to them because there’s so much going on in their heads and so much that they’re trying to deal with. I have skills, but I don’t have the skills to be able to deal with everything.”
Dean is not the only youth worker that struggles to provide the kids what they need. They don’t have the training required to be able to deal with some of the situations they inevitably face. And without support or resources in the area, they are left to simply listen, even though the kids require so much more.
I’ve had to really accept the fact that you’re not going to save everybody.
A large reason for this, Dean explains, is that Choices Youth Shelter is not set up to be that kind of shelter. “It’s unfortunate because that program is set up for homeless youth to go there, but it’s not an ideal program because it’s not set up for mental health either. In fact when I was there, if people would stay with us who had mental health but were refusing their medication and their behaviours were too much for us to deal with we would actually ask them to leave. It’s only one staff for twenty people and it’s possibly a risk to you and the rest of the people, or themselves so they had to leave. So it’s not set up for mental health either, there’s not enough supervision for that.”
Through working at Choices and other group homes, Dean continues to see the pressing issue among homeless youth. “I just want to see something in town that deals with mental health and right now, as it stands, there’s nothing. Not even Choices. It sucks.”
“It’s not all doom and gloom though,” Dean said. “You’ll go in sometimes and you’ll have a day where you’ll see that person so happy and it’s the best day ever over something so simple. So you live for those days.”
Where those days are few and far between, Dean admits, “I’ve had to really accept the fact that you’re not going to save everybody.”
“It is a good job though, I enjoy it a lot. But there is a lot of stress involved. I just look at it as I’m not saving everybody, but I’m helping out someone right now so that’s good. That’s all you can do, unfortunately.”
Click to see images of Choices Youth Shelter
*To maintain confidentiality, the subject’s real name is not used in this story.