Ottawa

From depression to self-harm, teens are struggling during COVID-19

Stresses and anxieties of the past year have led to more cases of self-harm, opioid use and eating disorders among young people.

It's a 'pandemic of mental health,' says one Ottawa expert

Many teenagers have found it hard to socialize with their peers, and outside of their families, during COVID-19. And that can lead to frustration, anxiety and depression, mental health experts say. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Going to school, hanging out with friends, playing sports, dancing at the prom — until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that had all been part of being a Canadian teenager.

For many teens, it's been a year of restrictions, unpredictability and loneliness, as the pandemic has deprived their lives of a daily school structure and access to their social groups. 

And according to mental health professionals and parents, that means the kids are not all right. 

"We should not be making the mistake of thinking everything's OK, because it's not," said Joanne Lowe, vice-president of mental health and addictions at CHEO, the region's children's hospital, and the executive director of the Youth Services Bureau.

"We are now in the next pandemic, and it is a pandemic of mental health crisis." 

WATCH: Parent recounts watching children struggle during the pandemic

Parent recounts watching children struggle during the pandemic

7 months ago
1:09
Sarah Young, the parent of two teenagers, says she and other parents saw their children lose interest in school without the social interactions that would normally be part of the day. 1:09

Lowe said there's been an almost 30 per cent increase in the need for youth counselling and addiction services, as well as a similar increase in young people showing up at the emergency department, suffering from anxiety, depression, self-harm and other mental health issues.

There's also been a 60 per cent increase in the number of youth reporting eating disorders, she added, compared to the same time last year.  

And an association of provincial mental health agencies released results of a survey this month that found nearly three out of every four Ontarians  "were facing increased mental health and substance use challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Frustration, isolation, anxiety

At Family Services Ottawa, counsellor Merissa Taylor-Meissner is busy with back-to-back sessions with teenagers experiencing mental health problems.

Normally, the teenage years are about self-discovery and flexing independence from one's parents, Taylor-Meissner said.

"Connecting with peers outside of the family is a key part of development for adolescents, " said Taylor-Meissner .

"The impact of not being able to do this [includes] frustration, isolation, and a lack of focus which can lead to depression and anxiety." 

According to Joanne Lowe, 'we should not be making the mistake of thinking everything's OK, because it's not.' (Anne Girard)

According to Sarah Young, the mother of two high school students in downtown Ottawa, kids are "not doing anything near to what they used to be doing."

After in-class learning was suspended last spring, Young said her kids and their friends became anxious and depressed without sports and other social outlets to let off stream.

As a result, Young formed a group with 40 other families to plan physically-distanced ways for their teens to meet up, and launched an online chat room for high school students to talk among themselves.

"It's like a stagnated marsh, when it's normally a time of deep change and exploration. You cannot seek your autonomy from your parents when you're together 24/7," she said.

Families should seek out professional help if they're concerned about their teens, or if they want to resolve friction resulting from spending so much time together under one roof, said Wendy O'Connell Smith, co-ordinator of the parenting program at Family Services Ottawa.

"If there's a family problem or conflict, involve [teenagers] in the solutions for it," she said.  "That's the way that we can send the message to our young people that they're valued and they have self-worth."

WATCH: Loss of social interactions means trouble with building social skills, psychiatrist says

Loss of social interactions means trouble with building social skills, psychiatrist says

7 months ago
1:03
Dr. Gail Beck, clinical director of youth mental health at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, says teens use social interactions to build skills that serve them for the rest of their lives, something that has been curtailed by the pandemic. 1:03

'Sustained' investments needed

Young blames the Ontario government for not anticipating the psychological fallout for young people and for failing to provide adequate mental health services. 

Mental health care providers say they've devised new programs to help support young people as quickly as possible, while crisis help phone lines run 24/7 and virtual counselling sessions are offered online without a doctor's referral. 

Lowe says to truly take on this "pandemic" of mental health issues, it will require a greater financial commitment from the government. 

"Unless we get some sustained and long-term investments," said Lowe, "we will see that the toll that this takes on the mental health of our kids is substantial."

In a statement to CBC, Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott, said the Ontario government recognizes the need for a wide array of mental health services for young people and has responded  with significant emergency funding. 

"Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ontario has invested up to $194 million in emergency funding for mental health and addictions ... services and supports." Hilkene wrote.

"We will continue to ensure that Ontarians have access to the high-quality mental health and addictions services they need." 

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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