Author: Cathy Xie (University of Toronto undergraduate student & CCRC volunteer)
In Canada, January can be a hard month: the weather is chilly, and winter looms ahead. This January is particularly challenging for many Canadians, as the lockdown due to COVID-19 continues. Many young people undoubtedly have a case of the January blues at this stage of the pandemic. Schools remain closed in some provinces, surgeries are delayed, and sports and recreation programming remains on hold. For some children and youth, however, the feelings of isolation and despair go beyond seasonal or temporary sadness; instead, they are facing challenges in receiving needed help for mental health.
Mental health and physical health are intrinsically connected. Both are foundational to a child or youth’s wellbeing, and addressing needs across both domains is crucial to supporting optimal health and development. In Ontario, on average, 1 in 5 individuals between ages 4 and 16 experience some form of mental health concern, and yet 83% of these children and youth do not receive proper treatment (1). Waitlists for mental health services have doubled over the past two years, leaving youth and children waiting as long as two and a half years to receive treatment (2). Early intervention has been shown to mitigate long-term risk; without addressing mental health concerns early on, there can be lifelong effects (3).
Youth and children typically spend a great amount of time in school, however, dealing with a mental health condition can affect a child’s or adolescent’s ability to succeed in school. Experiencing a mental health condition can result in difficulty making friends, disruptive behaviour, unexplained absences from school and can ultimately result in teens dropping out of school. Stigma towards mental health in schools can isolate students from social groups or the classroom which in turn can make it more difficult for students to receive the help they need (4). Indeed, it is crucial that schools offer services and support for students who are having difficulty in the classroom as early intervention can improve a teen’s ability to succeed in school and life.
The right to accessible mental health services for children and youth is important at all times, but we can see this in particular over the past 10 months during the COVID-19 pandemic. The The stressors associated with Covid-19 have increased the prevalence of mental health concerns among children and youth. There are a number of hypotheses about why this is the case. For instance, school closures, physical distancing measures, and limited contact with friends and other adults, have meant that children and youth have a lack of access to community and social supports which can intensify feelings of loneliness and grief (5). Furthermore, it is possible that financial and economic hardship within the family make it difficult for the basic needs of children and youth, such as food and stable housing, to be met. Earlier research shows that there is some evidence that children who have been quarantined with their parents during health epidemics are at an increased risk of post-traumatic stress (6). In addition, distress during Covid-19 may exacerbate symptoms of pre-existing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and may disproportionately impact children and youth who were receiving treatment through their schools prior to the pandemic.
Trauma experienced in childhood, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated public health restrictions, can have significant long term health consequences with an increased risk of more serious problems later in life (7). Accessible mental health services is a right that all children and youth should have. Factors that need to be address in order to realize this right include health service responsiveness, wait times, accessibility, and stigma. These can all lead to structurally vulnerable young people being prevented from receiving the help they need to realize their broader human rights.
1 MHASEF Research Team. (2015) The Mental Health of Children and Youth in Ontario: A Baseline Scorecard. Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.
2 Children’s Mental Health Ontario (2020) Kids Can’t Wait: 2020 Report on Wait Lists and Wait Times for Child and Youth Mental Health Care in Ontario
3 American Psychiatric Association (2018) Warning Signs of Mental Illness
4 Gregory Fritz, Stigma and Mental Illness (Lifespan)
5 Children’s Mental Health Ontario (2020) How the Pandemic Impacts Children’s Mental Health
6 Sprang, G. and Sillman, M. (2013). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in parents and youth after health-related disasters. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 7, 105-110
7 National Institute of Mental Health, Children and Mental Health