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

A man wears a mask while walking down Canyon Street in Creston on Nov. 13. Photo: Aaron Hemens
Creston resident living with COVID-19 reflects on experience

Contracting and living with the virus, she said, has led to a “major reset” in her life

Regional and local governments will eventually be required by the province to follow the BC Energy Step Code, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases from buildings. Some governments, now including the RDCK, have decided to phase it in voluntarily ahead of provincial deadlines. File photo
VIDEO: RDCK adopts Step 1 of provincial home energy efficiency plan

New buildings must comply with first level of the BC Energy Step Code

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 70 new cases overnight

The total number of cases in the region is now at 1,426

An employee of the Adventure Hotel was taken to hospital on Nov. 20 after she confronted a customer of Empire Coffee about not wearing a mask. File photo.
Nelson hotel employee suffers heart attack after being assaulted in anti-mask incident

An accountant at the Adventure Hotel is in hospital in Kelowna

RCMP pictured at a motor vehicle incident during snowy conditions. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Fruitvale woman charged with impaired driving in 2019 crash that killed 2 teens

A 15-year-old boy and 18-year-old woman, both from Fruitvale, died in the crash that sent the vehicle into the river

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

FILE - This May 4, 2020, file photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.  Pfizer announced Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, more results in its ongoing coronavirus vaccine study that suggest the shots are 95% effective a month after the first dose. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)
VIDEO: B.C. planning for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the first weeks of 2021

The question of who will get the vaccine first relies on Canada’s ethical framework

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
Canada can make vaccines, just not the ones leading the COVID-19 race

Canada has spent more than $1 billion to pre-order seven different developing COVID-19 vaccines

British Columbia Premier John Horgan speaks during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Horgan is set to introduce his NDP government’s new cabinet Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP cabinet built to tackle pandemic, economic recovery, says former premier

Seven former NDP cabinet ministers didn’t seek re-election, creating vacancies in several high-profile portfolios

The COVID-19 test centre at Peace Arch Hospital is located on the building’s south side. (Tracy Holmes photo)
B.C. woman calls for consistency in COVID-19 post-test messaging

‘Could we just get one thing straight?’ asks Surrey’s Deb Antifaev

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Most Read