Whether it’s a child who is suddenly anxious and reluctant to leave home, or a teenager whose underlying depression has worsened due to social isolation and online school pressures, youth mental health has suffered during the pandemic, experts say.
A recent University of Calgary study of more than 80,000 children around the world found symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled amid COVID-19 – a finding echoed by mental health advocates, psychologists and parents.
JD Clarke’s 17-year-old daughter had mental health issues. The circumstances of the lockdowns related to the pandemic actually helped her mental health, as being at home meant not having to deal with the social pressures of school.
“What happened with COVID for her was the simplification,” said Clarke of London, Ont.
However, her youngest daughter, who suffered from general anxiety before the pandemic, needed serious help.
She lost activities she loved, like cheerleading and the school’s social infrastructure, and these were replaced by screen time, Clarke said. Even her therapist was online. She would also become anxious about going to a restaurant or shopping mall.
“Her mental health has really started to deteriorate, to such an extent that over the past three months, I would say, she has developed an eating disorder and is in an inpatient program to try to help. [with] that, ”Clarke said.
He speculates that COVID-19 could have triggered it, as children thrive in environments where there is predictability and planning, and eating disorders can be about controlling the body in a chaotic world.
Call for teacher training on student identification issues
Tracey Bazso volunteers with the Hamilton-based non-profit Youth Mental Health Canada and works with children as part of her youth ministry.
“I deal with kids who are in 5th, 6th grade, sometimes younger, who admit, ‘I’m having trouble with my body image because I don’t see people like me in the media’ or ‘J ’cause it hard because people at school make fun of me, ”she said.
“In [adults’] spirits, they don’t think a child has depression or anxiety, and it’s a lot more common than we would like to admit. But we often pass him off as: ‘This kid has behavioral problems, he’s not a good kid, he doesn’t want to listen, he doesn’t want to be in class, he doesn’t want to do his homework. ‘”
Bazso said more training is needed for teachers to identify students’ unique mental health issues.
“We all know that stress plays an important role in your cognitive abilities and in the way you process information, which allows students to have a safe environment to explore this and talk about their stress, and allow them to say, “You know what? I need a school mental health day where I stay home and focus on myself. ‘”
Bazso, a student at Redeemer University in Hamilton, is doing a double major – specialized social work, religion and theology. She went through her own personal struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and began volunteering partly to connect with and help other young people.
No education without mental health
Sheryl Boswell is the Executive Director of Youth Mental Health Canada, where Bazso volunteers. Boswell said access to mental health services is a serious problem and families in crisis often receive counseling, but not real help.
“Before COVID, during COVID, and as we fight back to something that will likely include COVID, parents are being told these things: the importance of early intervention, the importance of good communication with your kids and the importance of wellness, healthy habits, sleep, healthy eating, daily physical activity – you know, all of those ways to relax, ”said Boswell.
“They do all of these things, and then a professional tells them, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to put yourself on a waiting list.'”
His group and others are doing what they can to help. In September, they are launching an academic and community peer support program, and about 100 schools across Canada have already signed up.
She said schools can help create an environment conducive to the promotion of good mental health. But she also fears that the focus will be on “catching up”. Instead of stepping up demands on young people, there should be a gradual transition with lots of mental health support, Boswell said.
“There is no education without mental health… people are starting to understand that it takes precedence over everything else.”
Helping children depends on a “unique personality”
For children and adolescents facing a clinical diagnosis such as depression or anxiety, highly specialized psychotherapy can help, said child psychologist Tina Malti, director of the Center for Children’s Mental Health, Development and Policy. University of Toronto (Mississauga).
Malta and her colleagues are also studying children to find out how the pandemic has affected them.
There are “protective factors” that make some children more resilient, such as the ability to empathize with others, the ability to regulate emotions and overcome setbacks, and to have strong relationships with caregivers. .
Two groups that Malti will pay particular attention to are children aged three to eight and adolescents – considered “sensitive periods” because that is when they experience a lot of change and growth.
“If we target these periods of development, the hope is that we can do a lot of good.”
Back to school brings hope
For Clarke and her daughters, it is hoped that a return to school will give their mental health a boost.
Her teenager moved to Halifax for college. He’s a bit preoccupied with studying as she didn’t have to take any exams in her senior year of high school, but she seems happy in her new home away from home.
His youngest daughter is excited to go back to school in person because she didn’t like online learning but still has some anxiety, he said.
“This is the standard thing [she’s worried about] – who will be my teacher, who will be in my class. It’s just a lot higher than it’s ever been before. ”
Clarke thinks it’s crucial to have a safe environment for children to tell if they are having difficulty and for teachers to watch for signals.
“What you need to focus on are the behaviors you should be adopting, and part of that is focusing on how to take care of someone else, how to notice that someone might not be. alright… I think there has to be an element that is built into the curriculum that surrounds it. “
He hopes telling his family’s story will help break some of the stigma attached to talking about these issues.
“When we had issues with my oldest daughter, one of the things I remember saying to people in the office is, ‘You know I’m going through these challenges… You might notice I’m distracted, or I may have to cancel meetings at the last minute. ‘”
He discovered something he never expected: other people started sharing their own stories.