Two years into pandemic, effects of COVID-19 on youth mental health a growing concern

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 takes toll on the mental health of children'
COVID-19 takes toll on the mental health of children
Even as adults cope with ever-changing restrictions and advice around the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress they're living is being passed on to their children, leading to growing concerns for child psychologists. Kylie Stanton reports – Jan 21, 2022

While children have largely been spared from the most severe physical outcomes of COVID-19, the toll the pandemic is taking on youth mental health is another story.

Children and teenagers in B.C. have accounted for fewer than one in five COVID-19 cases, and less than two per cent of hospital admissions.

But a recent University of Calgary study looking at data from more than 80,000 youth around the world found depression and anxiety symptoms have doubled in children and adolescents compared to pre-pandemic.

It’s a trend doctors at BC Children’s Hospital say they’ve observed as well.

The hospital’s emergency department has reported an 11-per cent increase in youth arriving for mental health treatment since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Ashley Miller, who works as a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the hospital, said youth with existing depression or anxiety or who are affected by  neurodevelopmental differences seem to have struggled the most with periods of greater restrictions.

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But she said all young people, who thrive under routine and structure, were affected to a greater or lesser extent.

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“As things open up and kids and teens are able to see their friends more and get back to their regular activities more, things seem to improve, but then when it gets into another wave and things shut down a little more, there’s that sense like we all have of ‘I’m so tired of it and why can’t I do these things I want to do,'” she said.

“And there are some kids and teens who just kind of struggled the whole time, so there’s a bit of a mix depending on a lot of different factors.”

Click to play video: 'Mental health of kids deteriorates as pandemic rages on'
Mental health of kids deteriorates as pandemic rages on

From changes to everyday life like handwashing and masks, to disruption and anxiety around children’s institutions like daycares and schools, the pandemic has also loaded pressure onto parents.

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Miller said that is also an important factor, given that kids — especially younger ones — take their cues from mom and dad.

“So, if parents are feeling highly anxious, regardless of the cause — and they communicate that through what they say, but also through their non-verbal behaviours — especially little kids will take their cues from that,” she said.

The risk of COVID-19 to children, though lower than for adults, remains real. Many suffer from the effects of so-called long COVID, and a small number have also developed a poorly-understood syndrome called MIS-C.

MIS-C refers to multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, first identified in April 2020, which can occur after COVID-19 infection and affects mostly school-aged children.

But given the potential mental health challenges, doctors say parents need to manage a tricky balance between keeping their kids safe, and mentally healthy.

“The real message is we have to do as much as possible as we can to support these kids – so that when they come through the pandemic, we’re not looking at long-term consequences of that,” Dr. Manish Sadarangani, pediatric infectious disease physician at BC Children’s Hospital said.

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With the evolving epidemiology of COVID as the Omicron variant becomes dominant, Miller said parents will need to look at reassessing their tolerance for risk, a process she said can be made easier for kids by introducing changes gradually.

The good news, according to Miller, is that the things that mental health experts have long prescribed to help children and teens thrive remain constant: keeping up with routines, getting enough sleep, physical activity and time outdoors and quality time with the family.

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