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What’s It Like Being a Kid During COVID-19? Not Good

But a new report offers a blueprint for supporting children, youth and their families in these perilous times.

Katie Hyslop 13 Nov

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Eight months into a global pandemic, evidence is mounting that children and youth are facing increased stress and mental health problems.

Calls to Kids Help Phone lines across Canada have doubled, and domestic violence hotlines across the country are reporting a surge in calls. Crisis Centre BC is reporting a 25-per-cent increase in calls since the pandemic began in March.

We won’t know for some time exactly how children and youth are affected by the isolation, stress and fears they’re experiencing.

But the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth is making some educated guesses with its report "COVID-19 and the Impact on Children’s Mental Health," based on a review of studies of child and youth mental health during past pandemics and natural disasters.

The report identifies issues for children and youth including increased mental health and behavioural problems, more drug overdoses, loss of services and supports for kids and youth with special needs and the collapse of some child welfare placements during the pandemic.

“We’ve been monitoring our advocacy calls, our critical injury and death reviews, and the feedback we’re getting from our community consultations to see what… patterns are emerging,” said Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth. The report is just the first of several COVID-related reports her office has planned, she added.

“Our data is still fledgling data — we don’t know what the nature of the impact is going to be. We can see there are problems, but not on a broad scale.”

So Charlesworth’s office turned to the Children’s Health Policy Centre at Simon Fraser University to analyze the impacts of past pandemics, like SARS, and natural disasters on children and youth. The goal was to guide decision-makers toward effective prevention and intervention for children, youth and their families.

The centre’s team, led by director Dr. Charlotte Waddell, identified increased rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among children who were quarantined and isolated in past pandemics or who survived natural disasters.

Waddell told The Tyee that even before the pandemic there were about 95,000 children and youth in B.C. with mental illnesses serious enough to require intervention.

Less than half of them receive any kind of mental health support, let alone effective support, she said. The need for supports will increase because of the pandemic, Waddell added.

“We need to be treating 100 per cent of kids like we would be for children with physical health problems, but we need to expect to ramp it up even more because of COVID-19.”

That doesn’t just mean creating more community-based mental health supports, although they’re needed, the report says.

Charlesworth would like to see schools better equipped to deal with mental illness prevention, identification and treatment.

And the report calls for more supports for families with kids who were already suffering before the pandemic, whether from socioeconomic reasons like inadequate housing and income or social reasons like racism and the impacts of colonization.

For example, many Indigenous communities were already dealing with poverty, substandard housing, lack of access to clean water and food insecurity before the pandemic.

First Nations have shown incredible resilience and strength in dealing with these dire circumstances, Waddell said.

But then the pandemic hit.

“Now they’re having to cope with COVID, but they have many fewer resources within those communities compared to all other Canadian communities,” she said.

Waddell and Charlesworth said policy makers need to understand the connection between COVID-19 and all the other factors affecting families and their mental health.

Charlesworth said housing insecurity and economic insecurity “contribute to parental mental health challenges, which contribute to child mental health challenges.” The pandemic amplifies those challenges, she said.

“So when we start to think of having a new way forward to recover from the pandemic, to restore the economy and economic well-being, my hope is that this will be understood more fully as a broader systems problem.”

While the report is intended to be more informative than prescriptive, Waddell and Charlesworth expressed support for systems that support families from pregnancy to adulthood, with proven prevention and treatment methods.

They pointed to programs like A Mother’s Story, a Nuu-chah-nulth program that pairs expecting and new mothers with community nurses who, along with family, Elders and the community, wrap cultural, medical and spiritual supports around the young family.

The government should also be increasing investment in two areas where B.C. already shines, Waddell and Charlesworth said — parenting programs and culturally appropriate cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Waddell said the challenge has been in “just sustaining the support in the child and youth mental health systems to ensure all the kids that need it get those.”

Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy acknowledged how stressful the pandemic has been for children and youth, especially on those in racialized and "struggling" families.

"That’s why we expanded access to mental health supports within weeks of the start of the pandemic and worked so hard to support a safe return to school," she said.

In April the province invested an additional $5 million into virtual, phone and in-person mental health supports, including Child and Youth Mental Health community-based teams, FamilySmart peer support for parents and Foundry clinics and referrals for youth 12 to 24.

"We are working to implement more supports now, and we remain committed to supporting the mental health of young people, both now and long after the pandemic," Conroy said.*

The report did not set out the costs of investing in prevention and intervention.

Waddell estimates it will likely be double the current spending. But while there will be short-term costs, there will also be long-term savings, he said.

Investing in mental health prevention, Waddell says, could save millions in services and supports over one person’s lifetime. Or, looked at another way, for every $1 invested in prevention, we will see $5 in saved costs for services over the next decade.

“Depression, anxiety, behaviour problems, post-traumatic stress — those are all preventable, in addition to being treatable,” Waddell said. “If we don’t prevent and/or treat, we start to see far greater long-term costs.”

*Story updated on Nov. 13 at 2:39 p.m. to include additional information from the B.C. government.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Education, Coronavirus

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