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

Forestry Ink columnist Jim Hilton. (File Photo)
FORESTRY INK: Responsible use of herbicides

Columnist Jim Hilton writes about the issue of spraying herbicides like glyphosate

This screenshot from the City of Quesnel website shows where paving took place during the 2020 season. (City of Quesnel website)
City of Quesnel completed overlay paving at five sites in 2020

The season’s work was completed within a budget of $375,000

Correlieu Secondary School students Hanna Fitchett, Justin Pugh and Jaeana Dumais (missing from photo) were recently recognized by the Quesnel and District Arts Council for their poetry submissions to the community writing contest. The students’ work was inspired by the novel Wenjack and the film The Secret Path. (Photo Submitted)
LETTER: Quesnel high school students’ poetry recognized

CSS thanks the Quesnel and District Arts Council and its community writing contest partners

The director of the Wells Snowmobile Club, Dexter Knorr, shared what is in his safety kit when sledding. Included are spare parts for his machine, like sparkplugs, and specially-designed tow ropes. (Submitted Photo)
Wells Snowmobile Club director shares tips for safe sledding

Two Prince George men were recently stranded on Yanks Peak, one overnight

In this file photo from 2019, Tammy Burrows of the Wild Women of the North Society organizes the donations before the group of volunteers begins assembling Christmas hampers Dec. 22 at the Quesnel Tillicum Society Native Friendship Centre. The society is collecting food hamper items again this winter, along with winter clothing and warm gear. (Quesnel Cariboo Observer File Photo)
There are many ways to help fill Christmas hampers in and around Quesnel

Many businesses, volunteers and the RCMP are collecting hamper items over the next few weeks

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

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 Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

A man walks by a COVID-19 test pod at the Vancouver airport in this undated handout photo. A study has launched to investigate the safest and most efficient way to rapidly test for COVID-19 in people taking off from the Vancouver airport. The airport authority says the study that got underway Friday at WestJet’s domestic check-in area is the first of its kind in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Vancouver Airport Authority *MANDATORY CREDIT*
COVID-19 rapid test study launches at Vancouver airport for departing passengers

Airport authority says that a positive rapid test result does not constitute a medical diagnosis for COVID-19

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

More than 60 cm of snow has fallen at Ulkatcho First Nation near Anahim Lake in the Chilcotin since a snowfall warning went into effect Thursday, Nov. 26. (Graham West photo)
VIDEO: More than 60 cm of snowfall in Chilcotin since Thursday, Nov. 26

Graham West of Ulkatcho First Nation captures the scene on video

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