Sunday, January 29, 2023

Pandemic-driven mental health concerns ‘pervasive’ among kids, new survey suggests


A new survey released by the Alberta Medical Association warns the pandemic has taken a “deeply troubling” toll on the mental health of children and teens in the province.

The online survey, involving more than 700 parents, highlights just how many kids are struggling and just how difficult it is for families to get the help they need.

Nearly two-thirds of parents surveyed revealed the mental health of at least one of their children has suffered since the start of the pandemic with one quarter describing their child’s mental well-being as “much worse.”

Fifty-eight per cent of parents surveyed said their child is “currently” experiencing mental health concerns.

“What struck me was the sheer volume of kids that were struggling,” said Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren, president of the Alberta Medical Association.

“The emergency rooms will only see those kids that are the most extreme. It’s like the tip of the iceberg. And I think this survey really illustrates just how pervasive these issues actually are.”

Half of parents with kids under the age of six reported their child’s mental health had deteriorated since the pandemic hit and that jumps to a “staggering” 77 per cent for kids 15 and over.

Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren, president of the Alberta Medical Association, says with specialists and family doctors leaving Alberta, the province needs to focus on recruiting and retaining mental health care providers. (Submitted by Alberta Medical Association)

The report’s authors say bouts of isolation related to school closures, cancelled sporting activities and a reduction in in-person contact with friends play a key role.

“If we can’t get them the help they need now, then this is going to become an established issue for them moving forward into their adult years,” said Warren, who notes the mental health concerns identified by parents are wide-ranging and can be devastating.

“Lots of anxiety, in particular panic attacks. Anxiety around their health, anxiety around COVID. But also true depression. Suicidal thoughts, ideation, and actually acting on that which is really quite scary.”

‘Breaking point’

Edmonton-based pediatrician Dr. Bonnieca Islam has watched the mental health crisis unfold — both at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and in her outpatient clinic — as the pandemic drags on.

According to Islam, kids of all ages are struggling, including those with pre-existing conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and previously healthy children who are now starting to show up with anxiety and depression.

She estimates between 30 and 50 per cent of the kids she sees in clinic everyday are seeking mental health care.

“It’s always been an issue but right now it’s at a breaking point,” she said, noting the situation in the hospital is even more acute.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing things like deaths from suicides, eating disorders. Accidental or intentional overdoses….This is actually a big problem. It’s always existed but the numbers have skyrocketed during the pandemic.”

Edmonton-based pediatrician, Dr. Bonnieca Islam, says 30 to 50 per cent of the kids she sees in her clinic everyday are there for mental health reasons. Prior to the pandemic, it would have been 25 to 30 per cent. (Submitted by Bonnieca Islam)

Families can’t get help they need

A key concern identified in the survey is access to mental health care in Alberta.

“We’re just seeing a lack of resources because our numbers are so high,” said Islam, who adds when families are referred to mental health supports they’re often declined because wait lists are long and their cases aren’t considered “severe enough.”

As part of the survey, parents with children who have a mental health concern were asked to rate the ability of the province’s health system to meet their needs and 72 per cent described it as either “bad” or “very bad.”

“[They’ve] really struggled. … It’s hard to get them in to see a physician. It’s hard to get them in to see a therapist, a psychologist or social worker,” said Warren who wants the province to improve access, recruit and retain frontline mental health providers and improve school-based supports.

“We’ve seen losses in the workforce because of sheer exhaustion, burnout…It’s a field that’s hard on many people and it’s an area that we’ve always been short on. It’s just worse now,” she said.

“This is our window of opportunity to really get in there and help those kids now so we can prevent years going forward of mental health problems”

The survey also asked parents about physical health impacts with 43 per cent reporting a decline citing inactivity and an inability to participate in sports as key reasons.

The online survey, conducted by the Alberta Medical Association along with ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc. in May, 2022, involved 713 parents and is considered accurate plus or minus 3.7 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

If you or someone you love is struggling, AHS recommends the following resources:

  • Call the Distress Centre at 403-266-HELP (4357)
  • Call ConnecTeen at 403-264-TEEN or text 587-333-2724
  • Call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868.
  • Bullying Helpline at 1-888-456-2323
  • Call the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 or the addiction line at 1-866-332-2322.
  • Visit the Help in Tough Times website for more resources.
  • If in crisis call 911 or visit the closest emergency department.

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