Calgary pediatricians-in-training expand mental health supports for teens as pandemic drags on

Demand is growing for a presentation, designed by Calgary-based pediatricians-in-training, to help teens who may be struggling with their mental health as the pandemic drags on.

Pediatric residents from Alberta Children's Hospital to host virtual seminar on stress and the brain

Dr. Rebecca Hay, a pediatric resident at Alberta Children's Hospital, developed a presentation called Stress and the Brain. It was for local junior high students, but she's heard interest from other schools and is expanding the session to include parents as well. (Rebecca Hay)

Demand is growing for a presentation, designed by Calgary-based pediatricians-in-training, to help teens who may be struggling with their mental health as the pandemic drags on.

A group of pediatric residents from Alberta Children's Hospital went to nearly a dozen Calgary junior high schools in the fall to talk to students about the science behind mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

The presentation, called Stress and the Brain, works to destigmatize mental health issues, give kids the language to express what they're feeling and connect them with help if they're struggling.

"The most striking thing that I heard is a lot of the kids were so surprised to hear the resources that are out there, and were so surprised to hear that they could contact these resources," said Dr. Rebecca Hay,  a pediatric resident at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

"I think a lot of times with teenagers they may not … feel like they have that kind of autonomy and sometimes those feelings of helplessness and feeling out of control can exacerbate underlying mental health struggles or struggles with stress."

Hay said she's now working with the Calgary Board of Education to set up question-and-answer sessions to provide additional support for teachers in the coming months.

She's been contacted by mental health advocates and other schools in Calgary and as far away as Nunavut. And while it's in the early stages, she hopes to adapt the presentation so it can be provided outside of Alberta.

The next step for the group is to offer the presentation to entire families in Calgary.

Dr. Rebecca Hay, left, and her colleagues Dr. Elise Martin, middle, and Dr. Madi Riddell, right, took their presentation to 11 Calgary junior high schools in the fall in an effort to destigmatize mental health issues and help connect teens with supports. (Submitted by Rebecca Hay)

"Really empowering parents to say 'this is what I could look out for and this is who I could contact and access to help my teen and maybe even help myself.' I think a lot of us are struggling," said Hay.

"Parents are the best supports and advocates for their kids, and we really just want to give parents the tools that they need to be able to do that.… Everyone needs a little bit extra TLC these days. So if we can help a few parents as well who may feel a little bit lost, it's something that we would love to do."

The latest session is being offered as a webinar in partnership with Alberta Health Services through its community education service program on Thursday, Jan. 6, at 6:30 p.m.

According to Lori Roe, with AHS's child and adolescent mental health, addictions and psychiatry program in the Calgary zone, demand for science-based information like this is growing.

"There seems to be both an uptick in folks struggling with their mental health and trying to understand their mental health and the impact of the pandemic on that," she noted.

"But the other piece which I think is a bit of a positive note is we've also seen an increase in the interest in getting more information and knowledge and a willingness … to really take action and start being more proactive."

Roe said it's important for families to understand that it's normal for kids to feel COVID-related anxiety or stress.

"I think it's really important both to provide the language around when is there really something that we need to pay attention to and there's something wrong and what is normal? And how do we not overemphasize normal reactions?" she said.

"We need to find that balance of understanding how can we support that normal reaction and help children and youth be heard and understood and validated for their feelings and emotions and ideally not let that then travel down the road to be getting more serious and really needing intervention." 

And, with a surge in Alberta children showing up to hospital in mental health crisis during the pandemic, Roe said early intervention — by involving the entire family — is key.

"In order for us to get in front of this wave of presentations at emergency departments and these acute mental health presentations, we need to get information out there."

If you're struggling or know someone who is, you can call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service hotline 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566, or text "CONNECT" to the Kids Help Phone (which also serves adults) at 686868.

For a list of 24-hour crisis centres in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's website.

If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911. 


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.