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Canadian street kids burdened by serious psychological problems, says agency
December 7, 2004 - 18:48

MONTREAL (CP) - Canada's largest cities are filled with street kids who suffer scarring psychological problems that affect their ability to lead productive lives, says a Montrealer who took shelter on streets across the country.

"It's really the same (everywhere)," said Nicolas, 23, who hitchhiked across the country in search of freedom. Street kids often struggle to deal with their past and the challenges of living on the streets, he said at a news conference launching the annual fundraising campaign to help Montreal street kids.

Heavy consumption of drugs and alcohol frequently induce mental crises among young people on the street, said Nicolas, who didn't offer his last name.

"When you do cocaine and heroin, it's more damaging for the body and the brain," said the former Abitibi, Que., resident who is studying to work with exotic and medicinal plants.

Nicolas said he now finds peace from video games, reading and growing bonsai instead of doing drugs.

About 180 Montreal youth sought help daily last month from psychologists with Montreal's Dans la rue organization.

"The tragedy is that a lot have drug-induced schizophrenia," said Rev. Emmett (Pops) Johns, who founded the organization to help street kids 16 years ago.

The number of crisis interventions by the group's psychologists surged to 233 in 2003 from five in 2000.

A 2002 study published by Montreal's public health department suggested that 65 per cent of the city's street kids had suicidal thoughts. Their mortality rate was 10 times higher than other Quebec youths.

In Toronto, more resources have been devoted in the past five years to help identify and treat street kids with psychological problems, say counsellors.

While long-term drug use can cause problems, narcotics are generally used by the homeless to survive on the street, said Kinsey Lewis, a therapy counsellor with Shout Clinic, which helps youth 16-25 years old.

"Drugs are always a response to a life situation or problem that is already there," she said in an interview.

The exposure to several months of surviving the extremes of street life induces mental health changes, said Lewis.

Many of the homeless face a series of problems, including childhood trauma, developmental delays, learning disabilities and severe abuse, said Susan Miner, director of Street Outreach Services, a Toronto agency that helps young prostitutes.

"People are reporting that concurrent disorders are a growing concern. They've been around for years but it is targeted as a concern."

In Montreal, two in-house psychologists at Dans la rue help youth overcome their problems and the depression that frequently accompanies loneliness.

"When you lose the family, you lose boundaries," said psychologist Jean-Francois Ducharme.

"It's important for kids to say there is a place where I can go, where somebody is going to be there for me and kind of listen to me in a non-judgmental way."

Although he's new to counselling, Francis Labrecque, 22, said the sessions have helped him to come to terms with his drug use, the death of his mother and his unhappy childhood.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "It's not something that can be accomplished in two weeks."
For the first time in his life, Labrecque said he's become aware of the importance of examining his past as a guide for resolving his problems.

"The interesting thing is that the solutions come from me," he said.

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