Eating disorders, substance abuse increasing in youth amid pandemic, says Hamilton hospital

The president of McMaster Children's Hospital said it's disappointing that the provincial government isn't reopening schools for the remainder of the school year. Global News

Eating disorders, substance abuse and suicide attempts are just some afflictions McMaster Children’s hospital says they’ve seen increase amid months of COVID-19 pandemic safety measures in Ontario over the last year.

A recent report from Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) which chronicles a four-month period (September to December 2020) during the pandemic, says the shared hypotheses among staff is that isolation, exercise risks, no school, and limited access to physicians are contributors to the negative changes tied to recent youth mental health issues.

“We are all coping with multiple stressors brought on by the current pandemic,” says Dr. Paulo Pires from McMaster’s Child & Youth Mental Health Outpatient Services.

“We must be attentive to the unique impact of these stressors on children and youth depending on their stage of development.”

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The facility says there was an “unprecedented” increase in referrals to their eating disorders program during the four-month period, 90 per cent more compared to 2019 numbers.

The agency says there were 117 new referrals between September and December compared to just 67 the year before.

Click to play video: 'Increase in need for youth mental health support'
Increase in need for youth mental health support

Meanwhile, increased conflict at home, a lack of social interaction and the inability to rely on friends are believed to be contributors in a steady increase in suicide-related events.

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“Youth admitted for medical support after a suicide attempt has tripled over a four-month period, compared to last year,” the report said. “Patients are staying in hospital longer due to more serious attempts.”

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Youth admitted with substance abuses has also doubled compared to 2019, particularly the use of opioids.

The report from McMaster comes on the heels of a more general mental health survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association which is urging the province to invest in the sector during upcoming budget talks.

The CMHA poll suggests the second wave of the pandemic has “eroded” Ontarians already fragile emotional well-being.

CHMA CEO Camille Quenneville told Global News that three surveys conducted amid the pandemic have trended lower than the previous and continue to head “in the wrong direction.”

The current poll, conducted by Pollara who surveyed just over 1,000 Ontarians online between Feb. 19 and 22, suggests only 35 per cent of Ontarians consider their mental health to be “very good” or “excellent.”

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That’s down about 17 per cent from the first round of polling in May.

Of particular concern is substance abuse in which more than one-quarter of Ontarians – 27 per cent – are using more substances to cope with the pandemic. That’s up from 21 per cent in a CHMA summer poll.

“We have never seen the kind of opioid overdose epidemic that we’re in right now,” said Quenneville.

“The numbers are terrifying and the amount of alcohol consumption has also gone up to all-time highs.”

Quenneville says accessing mental health supports is becoming difficult according to the survey’s respondents. Thirty-five per cent say they are finding it difficult to get help compared to the 27 per cent in the summer who said they had issues with professional supports.

Pires says about 1 in 5 children are suffering from a mental health concern, but only about 1 in 4 actually receive treatment.

Click to play video: 'Toronto woman shines light on youth mental health in memory of her daughter'
Toronto woman shines light on youth mental health in memory of her daughter

The psychologist and clinical director says parents should look out for changes in eating, sleeping and behaviours which last for many days or weeks.

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“Changes in behaviour can include expressions of distress, disconnecting from loved ones, or acting-out behaviours. Caregivers are encouraged to reach out for professional help for their children or for themselves as parents,” says Pires.

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