Children walk with their parents to Sherwood Park Elementary in North Vancouver for the first day back-to-school Thursday, September 10, 2020. Dr. Charlotte Waddell, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, says she’s expecting to see increases in the number of kids experiencing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and other behavioural challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Children walk with their parents to Sherwood Park Elementary in North Vancouver for the first day back-to-school Thursday, September 10, 2020. Dr. Charlotte Waddell, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, says she’s expecting to see increases in the number of kids experiencing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and other behavioural challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Clinicians worry pandemic is worsening youth mental health

Long-term studies and data are needed to assess exactly how the pandemic is affecting kids’ development

British Columbia’s children’s representative says the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified inadequacies in mental health services as experts brace for rising rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress in children and young people.

“Going forward, we would be very wise to invest significantly more in mental health,” given the pre-pandemic shortfalls and the benefits over time, said Jennifer Charlesworth in an interview.

Her office released a review Thursday of previous studies focused on kids’ mental health after infectious disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

The review was led by Dr. Charlotte Waddell, the director of the children’s health policy centre at Simon Fraser University.

Long-term studies and data are needed to assess exactly how the pandemic is affecting kids’ development and mental health in B.C. and beyond, said Waddell, but she’s concerned.

“The studies that we examined really strongly predict that we’re going to see significant increases in the number of kids with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression and behaviour challenges,” said Waddell, who’s a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry.

The Representative for Children and Youth receives hundreds of reports and calls from youth and advocates each month, said Charlesworth, and throughout the pandemic her office has noticed concerning trends related to mental health, substance use and family violence.

Both Waddell and Charlesworth emphasized that the pandemic is expected to have an inordinate effect on children living with pre-existing conditions and vulnerabilities, including those in foster care or in families that were already struggling with job loss and financial insecurity.

In their review, Waddell and her colleagues evaluated 60 articles published in the last 70 years, though they didn’t find any studies on mental health related to COVID-19 and children because the pandemic is still unfolding.

One 2009 study focused on kids’ mental health in parts of North America hit by outbreaks of avian influenza, the swine flu and severe acute respiratory system, or SARS.

It showed 20 per cent of 369 children surveyed had been isolated and 3.8 per cent had been quarantined. Of those children, 30 per cent exceeded the clinical threshold for post-traumatic stress symptoms, compared with 1.1 per cent of kids who did not isolate. When parents met or exceeded the same post-traumatic stress threshold, 85.7 per cent of their children did too, compared with 14.3 per cent of youngsters whose parents did not.

The good news, said Waddell, is that clinicians know how to effectively treat and prevent such challenges.

But children and their parents were already facing a stark shortfall in mental health supports before the pandemic and it now demands a massive scaling up, she said.

Waddell pointed to recent estimates that nearly 800,000 kids in Canada meet thresholds for a mental disorder needing treatment, but fewer than half are accessing support services.

Many people will need help as the pandemic runs its course, said Waddell, adding her plea is that children aren’t forgotten among the competing demands for resources.

“If we don’t address this, we are really talking about what will happen to our next generation of Canadian nurses and teachers and front-line workers of all types and we cannot turn away from this. We cannot afford not to address this, to really keep the kids in the foreground.”

Dr. Ashley Miller, a psychiatrist at B.C. Children’s Hospital, echoed Waddell, saying without long-term data it’s tough to glean exactly how the pandemic and restrictions are affecting kids.

Anecdotally, she said, clinicians are seeing a range of experiences; the pandemic may not have significant adverse effects if young kids have nurturing relationships with their primary caregivers, while others are presenting with deepening anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders.

Miller said the nature and extent of restrictions limiting social interactions and other activities is also a factor.

“If parents are under substantial stress — financial stress, their own mental health issues, relationship issues and certainly domestic violence, then that can have a profound affect the development of young children who are growing up in the household.”

The pandemic has also led to a drop in calls to child protection services, which Miller said is “concerning because we assume that there’s more need but that the systems of care, whether it’s schools or other programming where kids would be seen, they’re not having as much access to right now.”

Miller said many children are resilient but it’s difficult to say how quickly they will transition back to “pre-COVID” ways of interacting with each other, like hugging or sharing food.

Some kids will adapt fairly quickly once they see how adults are behaving, she said, while others who had problems before the pandemic may be stuck in those patterns for longer.

“Is there more (obsessive-compulsive disorder) after the pandemic, because people have become so accustomed to avoiding touching surfaces?” asked Miller. “That’s the kind of thing where we’ll start looking for.”

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusmental health

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Trevor Davis, base manager of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation in Sidney, stands in front of the Hecate Sentinal, an oil skimming vessel based at Sidney’s Van Isle Marina. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Oil spill response base taking shape on Saanich Peninsula

Enhanced base with elements in North Saanich and Sidney to be fully operational in fall 2022

The Santa’s Forest tree sale has taken place in the Braefoot Park lacrosse box every holiday season since 1996. (Photo courtesy Torsten Schulz)
Santa’s Forest tree sale in Saanich implements one-way perusing, curbside pick up

Christmas tree, wreath sales in Braefoot Park through Dec. 24

(Black Press Media file)
Webinars help Greater Victoria residents affected by dementia prepare for the holidays

COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions can add additional challenges for people living with dementia

Masks are mandatory for passengers on board BC Transit buses and for those waiting at covered bus stops. (BC Transit/Facebook)
Masks now mandatory on BC Transit buses, at covered bus stops

Face shields no longer meet face-covering requirements per updated policy

Mary Cox and Jack Plant dance in their pyjamas and slippers at the morning pyjama dance during the Rhythm Reelers’ 25 Annual Rally in the Valley Square Dance Festival in Chilliwack on June 4, 2011. Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 is Square Dancing Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5

Square Dancing Day, Disability Day and International Ninja Day are all coming up this week

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

A photo from 2017, of Nuchatlaht First Nation members outside court after filing a land title case in B.C. ( Submitted photo/Nuchatlaht First Nation).
Vancouver Island First Nation calls on B.C. to honour UNDRIP in historic title case

Nuchatlaht First Nation says Crown counsel continues to stall the case using the ‘distasteful’ argument that the Nation ‘abandoned’ their land

West Vancouver Island’s Ehattesaht First Nation continues lock down after 9 active cases were reported today after a visitor tested positive last week. (Ehattesaht First Nation/Facebook)
Ehattesaht First Nation’s COVID-19 nightmare: nine active cases, a storm and a power outage

The Vancouver Island First Nation in a lockdown since the first case was reported last week

114 Canadians were appointed Nov. 27 to the Order of Canada. (Governor General of Canada photo)
Indigenous actor, author, elder, leaders appointed to Order of Canada

Outstanding achievement, community dedication and service recognized

The Ahousaht First Nation confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on Nov. 26, 2020. (Westerly file photo)
Ahousaht First Nation on lockdown over COVID-19

“Emotions are high. The anxiety is high. We want our community to pull through.”

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
2 Lower Mainland churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

Most Read