'We are in a mental health crisis': Calgary doctors witness surge in kids in distress

Some Calgary doctors say they're watching a mental health crisis unfold as the pandemic drags on and hospitals, medical clinics and support programs are flooded with struggling children and families searching for help.

'Unprecedented' increase in anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts

A boy sits in a corner and holds his head in his hands.
The ER at Alberta Children's Hospital is, at times, seeing double the number of kids needing mental health help compared with a few years ago, says a Calgary doctor. (Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock)

Some Calgary doctors say they're watching a mental health crisis unfold as the pandemic drags on and hospitals, medical clinics and support programs are flooded with struggling children and families searching for help.

The health-care system — which was already struggling to keep up with demand for mental health supports prior to the pandemic — is now inundated with children dealing with long bouts of isolation, school closures and being cut off from activities, according to several specialists.

"This wave — this surge of need — it is everywhere," said Dr. Monique Jericho, a Calgary-based child and adolescent psychiatrist. "We are in a mental health crisis."

Jericho said she's witnessed an "unprecedented" number of kids show up in the emergency room at Alberta Children's Hospital grappling with serious mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

"There have been stretches of a couple of weeks where we have seen twice as many kids presenting with mental health concerns, and that's important because we don't have twice as many services, or doctors or nurses or specialists able to respond," she said.

"The acuity is very high. And the volume is exceptional. It's beyond anything that anyone would have ever faced before."

But the pressure goes beyond the hospital and specialized mental health clinics, according to Jericho. Families are turning to community physicians and their teams for help, too.

"We're seeing these kids present in medical clinics. We're seeing a huge deluge of these kids presenting in the community with pediatricians, with their family physicians," she said.

Dr. Monique Jericho says she's seeing an 'unprecedented' number of children show up in the emergency room with mental health concerns. And they're often much sicker. (Monique Jericho)

Unexplained physical symptoms

And doctors are encountering another concerning trend, according to Calgary pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, Dr. April Elliott.

According to Elliott, a growing number of children and teens are developing physical symptoms related to distress, a a condition known as "somatic symptom disorder."

The specialists who are encountering these patients don't usually specialize in mental health treatment.

"In neurology clinic, they've had an increase in young people presenting with tics or young people presenting with non-epileptic seizures or convulsions. In gastroenterology, they have more young people with abdominal pain. In respirology they have young people presenting with vocal cord dysfunction," she said.

"Many of my colleagues are in a lot of distress — moral distress — not knowing how to help these families and where to refer them because there just isn't the resources."

Elliott said she's seeing many kids who, prior to the pandemic, would have been involved in school and sports and coping, but who are now presenting with this mental health condition.

"And the individuals that they're presenting to aren't trained and don't have the expertise to necessarily manage this. And so we have a whole new area that we're looking at: How do we meet the needs of these young people?"

Dr. April Elliott, Calgary pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, says more youth are showing up in community medical clinics with physical symptoms related to distress, including unexplained tics, non-epileptic seizures and vocal chord problems. (April Elliott)

Both doctors believe the health-care system needs more resources to address the growing number of children in distress.

But they'd also like to see more school-based psychologists and increased supports for teachers in schools, where kids spend the majority of their time, and have access to a built-in support system.

"We have a moral imperative," said Jericho. "Children must become a priority."

And as the pandemic continues, Elliott and Jericho say they're relieved Alberta's reopening plan includes allowing children to return to sports and other activities.

"I'm heartened to see kids are part of the plan," said Elliott, who believes children's activities should have been prioritized through the pandemic. 

"And I hope that we keep them at the heart of the plan."


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.