Ottawa

Lack of school structure putting children's mental health at risk

A lack of routine and certainty during the COVID-19 pandemic is creating mental health challenges for Ontario's school kids, medical experts say.

Pandemic can be 'extremely stressful and traumatic' for some youngsters

Child psychologists say the switch from classroom to at-home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has left some children stressed and anxious, particularly those with pre-existing mental health conditions. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

A lack of routine and certainty during the COVID-19 pandemic is creating mental health challenges for Ontario's school kids, medical experts say.

"This is an extremely stressful and traumatic time," said Dr. Gail Beck, a child psychiatrist who works with adolescents and young adults at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

Beck said she's worried about how some children are coping without the daily rhythms of school days and the absence of classmates.

The young people she counsels, Beck said, are increasingly anxious about their uncertain academic future.

And for those who suffered from depression or other mental health disorders before COVID-19 arrived, the pandemic "could be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Beck said.

Prolonged absences from school have been shown to negatively affect the "social, emotional and academic development of children," said Dr. Maria Rogers, a member of the University of Ottawa's department of psychology.

Her greatest concern, Rogers said, is for children with depression who have been deprived of support during the pandemic, as they don't have access to teachers, social workers or school psychologists.

"I think we really need to sort of come together as a community to help look after our children's mental health right now." said Rogers. "The good news is that all the kids are in this together, they're all going through this together."

Maria Rogers, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, says behavioural changes in children can be a sign of deteriorating mental health. 1:03

Behavioural changes noted

 According to an Ipsos public health survey released by Children's Mental Health Ontario in late spring, half of Ontario's children were experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic.

The survey also found 59 per cent of Ontario parents had noticed behavioural changes in their child "ranging from outbursts or extreme irritability to drastic changes in mood, behaviour or personality and difficulty sleeping/altered sleeping patterns as well as persistent sadness."

The lack of predictability that a regular school day provides, as well as the longing for classmates and outdoor games, is destabilizing for youngsters in particular, said Beck. 

"It is that feeling of lack of control that's upsetting," she said. "And the younger they are, the more they need a routine."

A lack of routine and certainty during the COVID-19 pandemic is creating mental health challenges for Ontario's school kids, psychologists say. 2:32

Fall return

The Ontario government is planning for school to resume this September, although with changes that include more remote learning and class sizes capped at 15 students.

So with the return to a normal school schedule unlikely for the foreseeable future, Beck said it's up to adults to build structure into their child's lives by having set meal times and planned family activities.

For some children who are more introverted, the at-home learning experience has been successful, Rogers noted.

Regardless, when school does resume, it will be important for parents and teachers keep the lines of communication open and take note of any "concerning" changes, she said.

"I think it's going  be especially important  that parents caregivers and teachers are working together collaboratively, in the best interests of the child," said Rogers.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said Dr. Gail Beck was a child psychologist. In fact, Beck is a child psychiatrist.
    Jun 25, 2020 12:30 PM ET

About the Author

Sandra Abma

Journalist

Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at sandra.abma@cbc.ca.

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