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National study says 'our children are not alright' under mounting stress of pandemic

A report released Tuesday argues that the COVID-19 pandemic is making a bad situation worse as far as the mental and physical health of Canadian kids.

'Children's health has certainly worsened. Both their physical and mental wellbeing are in jeopardy'

A report published by the University of Calgary's O'Brien Institute for Public Health, the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute and Children First Canada examines how children have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of mental and physical health. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

A report released Tuesday argues that the COVID-19 pandemic is making a bad situation worse as far as the mental and physical health of Canadian kids.

The report, Raising Canada 2020, was published by the University of Calgary's O'Brien Institute for Public Health, the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, and Children First Canada, a national children's advocacy society.

It concludes that poverty and food insecurity, child abuse, neglect, physical inactivity and instances of anxiety and depression among children may be increasing — or are in danger of increasing — because of the pandemic. 

But one statistic stands out among all the others for the people who put the report together, according to Candace Lind, an associate professor at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Nursing and one of the authors.

"Suicide is now the leading cause of death among children age 10 to 14," she said.

"Childhood is not a happy time for a lot of children in Canada. Many of them experience the effects of poverty in their households, the effects of abuse and bullying at school, having issues with anxiety and depression," said Lind, who works with young people and their families on mental health issues.

Suicide remains the second leading cause of death among older teens and young adults 15 to 24 years old, the report says.

"The fact that young people ages 12 to about 17 often, when they are asked, they rate their own mental health less positively than their parents do, tells me some parents may not recognize their children's mental health struggle as it's happening," Lind said.

Canary in the coalmine

According to the report, one in three Canadian children does not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood at present; one in three Canadians has experienced abuse before the age of 15; and one in five children currently lives in poverty.

"Clearly this is a canary in the coal mines. Our children are not alright and we need to do much more to keep them safe," said the founder and CEO of Children First Canada, Sarah Austin.

"It is deeply alarming to hear that. I'm an advocate for kids but i'm also the mom of a ten year old and to think about suicide being the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14, that's what keeps me up at night..to think that these children are in such need of help and simply can't get the support that they need," Austin said.

For children already experiencing hunger and food insecurity or domestic abuse before the pandemic, the loss of job or change in the household income may be the tipping point for some families and can make a volatile situation more extreme.

Other families are only experiencing things like food shortages or financial insecurity for the first time, due to the pandemic, which is also an abrupt and traumatic change for children, the report says.

The report also highlights a concern that children who are Black or Indigenous are more often affected by things like food security and unemployment, and are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system.

The report also shows that Canadian adults of Chinese origin are worried that Asian children will be bullied when they return to school, or blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Call to Action 

The report is the third in a series of annual reports on the state of child health in Canada.

While it shows that issues that impact children's health have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Austin says the issues identified aren't new.

"Canada has been on the decline for over a decade, in terms of how we fare against other wealthy nations. So that was true even before the crisis hit and we know that now children's health has certainly worsened. Both their physical and mental wellbeing are in jeopardy and require urgent action," Austin said.

So with the deficits identified, the report and its authors are calling for action.

"First we are calling for the appointment of a federal commissioner for children and youth. Somebody that is actually in charge and is driving the agenda for children and ensuring that they are made a priority," Austin said.

"Secondly, we want to see a national strategy put in place to tackle these top ten threats to childhood health and really to focus on the most urgent issues in ways in which children are being impacted by COVD-19."

The third step is the creation of a children's budget to ensure there are resources now amid the pandemic, and when the crisis has passed.

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