Mental health impacts of pandemic on Toronto's young people could linger for years: report

'We are concerned that long-term anxiety and depression become life-long illnesses and burdens for our children to carry,” said the president of the Toronto Foundation.

Counselor says youth are in ‘survival mode,’ expects high demand for services to continue

'We need to be prepared for the fact that additional, long-term mental health problems will pose a big challenge,' says Asante Haughton in a report from the Toronto Foundation. (Submitted by Asante Haughton)

A wide-ranging new report that tracks the quality of life in Toronto is sounding the alarm about a looming crisis for the city's young people in the years ahead. 

Compiling information gleaned from hundreds of studies, interviews and articles, the Toronto Foundation's 2021 Vital Signs report warns of "alarming increases in mental health challenges" for children and youth in the city over the past two years. 

That includes more young people reporting feelings of loneliness, an uptick in visits to the Hospital for Sick Children emergency room over suicidal ideation, and increasing numbers of eating disorders. 

Those trends, coupled with a ballooning waiting list for services, are leading to widespread concerns that the impact of the last two years on mental health will continue on long after the pandemic is over. 

"We are concerned that long-term anxiety and depression become life-long illnesses and burdens for our children to carry," said Toronto Foundation president and CEO Sharon Avery. 

The 'shadow pandemic' 

Avery called mental health challenges a "shadow pandemic" that runs the risk of "overrunning the mental health system, which was already overburdened, particularly for youth." 

In early 2020, Children's Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) released numbers showing that some 28,000 children and youth under the age of 18 were waiting for mental health and addiction services — more than double the 2017 waiting list. 

Sharon Avery is the Toronto Foundation's president and CEO. (Paul Smith/CBC News)

That trajectory is expected to continue, with the Vital Signs report citing a release from the Ontario Medical Association describing an expected post-pandemic boom in demand for mental health services, informed in part by historical precedent. 

"Elevated rates of mental health challenges persisted for at least six years following the 1919 pandemic," the report reads. 

Studies of people who had to quarantine or isolate during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s cited in the same OMA release also showed that people experienced post-traumatic stress and depression afterwards. 

So why the delay? 

Part of the reason, says Asante Haughton, is due to the way trauma can function. 

"Our bodies are equipped to get through traumatic experiences … and then we feel the impact of that trauma when that experience ends," said Haughton, a mental health advocate and manager at Stella's Place, which provides mental health services for young people. 

Haughton says the number of young people seeking help shot up dramatically after March 2020, and that he wouldn't be surprised to see them increase once again "as we exit the pandemic." 

"One of the bigger challenges right now is simply do we have enough infrastructure to support the flood of service users we are likely going to receive," he said. 

Mental health counselor Octavia Sampson is concerned that isolation will deepen after the pandemic, preventing people from reaching out or building new communities. (Submitted by Octavia Sampson)

Octavia Sampson also believes the need for mental health services will increase. 

A mental health counselor, Sampson co-founded the Afya Collective — a group that aims to support and provide physical, mental and social health services for Black women and girls. 

"I think right now people are in survival mode, so they're just working on, 'What's going to get me to the next point,' she told CBC Toronto. 

"And eventually, once they are no longer worried about the immediate dangers, there's going to be a part of them that realizes, 'Wow, my whole world has changed.'" 

More programming, practical supports needed 

Both Sampson and Haughton say more programming and services are what's needed — in particular, Sampson says, services that are youth-led. 

Haughton agrees mental health services are critical, particularly programs in other languages, for Black and Indigenous young people, and in under-serviced areas of the city. 

He also says work needs to be done to address the everyday sources of stress that make life difficult.

"There is definitely an emphasis we should place on practical things. Young people need to have jobs and pay rent," he said, as well as afford things like food and transportation. 

That tracks with what Sharon Avery found in the larger Vital Signs report, which paints a picture of a city struggling with increasingly widespread inequality, which can then take a major toll on mental health. 

"Youth unemployment numbers are disproportionately higher, youth are not feeling hopeful about their futures, half of youth in Toronto are considering moving out of the province because they don't think they can make ends meet," she explained. 

"And then when you layer on the issues for racialized youth you have even higher numbers."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.