Cachelle Colquhoun, mother of four from Collingwood, Ont., is frustrated with the state of mental-health supports available to her children.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colquhoun has struggled to meet the needs of her nine-year-old with general anxiety disorder and attention deficit disorder and her six-year-old who has challenges with neurodiversity, including sensory disorder.
“I spend a lot of my days trying to find the right resources for my kids,” Colquhoun says. “Getting help is nearly impossible. And if you can access services, you price yourself out immediately.”
Pandemic measures have had adverse mental-health impacts on children, youth, and families. According to a report authored by Children’s Mental Health Ontario, nearly two-thirds of youth confirm their mental health has gotten worse since the beginning of the pandemic, with those already receiving help especially vulnerable. A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that 36 percent of Canadians aged 15-34 have experienced clinically significant levels of anxiety due to the pandemic.
Dr. Tess Clifford, director of the psychology clinic at Queen’s University, is not surprised.
“We see kids struggling with intense behavior and aggression toward others and self,” she says. “Kids not being able to participate in school.”
Clifford is a child and youth psychologist who is brought in when typical services are not working.
“Some of the things we are seeing are different than what we would typically see,” she says. “Agoraphobia, depression.”
She hears from community partners about kids lost to the system, having no contact with anyone.
“I don’t hear many positive stories,” she says. “I’m invited to support when things get really hard.”
She believes the surge in mental illness is partly due to community supports disappearing.
“We had solutions to help kids cope and manage and now those have been removed,” she says. “We need to think about what supports these children need and how to get those back in place.”
Clifford would like to see a greater focus on health promotion and mental-health crisis prevention strategies. She stresses we need to reintroduce recreation opportunities such as extracurricular activities, review school policies for proper supports, increase mental health services, and focus on positive personal connections.
“We need to figure out how to reduce the risk of COVID-19 but also reduce the risk of mental illness,” she says. “We must have more than one focus. We have to balance risks across all aspects of health.”
Marty Mako, commander of Mobile Integrated Health with Niagara Emergency Medical Services, sees firsthand the result when inadequate mental-health supports crash into unemployment and social isolation.
“People are feeling overwhelmed with these changes and these are exacerbated with underlying conditions,” he says.
In response to the pandemic, Niagara EMS received temporary funding to establish paramedicine outreach programs to support medically complex clients, including those experiencing mental health issues. The programs are new but have already decreased the number of transports to the ER by this cohort.
“We’re arriving on scene to provide a different suite of services,” Mako says. “We provide the right care at the right place at the right time by the right provider.”
In addition to responding to low-acuity cases and providing mobile medical services, the programs work to provide mental-health resources in a timely manner and reduce stigma among homeless and street populations. Mako is hopeful the programs will extend long after COVID-19 to help mitigate mental-health harms throughout the community.
“The full impact of this pandemic is still to come,” he says.
Research suggests long-lasting mental-health problems impact quality of life, physical health, and the onset of illness. These consequences are being experienced nationwide, according to Don Marentette, director of first aid education programs at the Canadian Red Cross. “Mental health is definitely a significant issue for Canadians,” he says.
Marentette manages psychological first aid and caring for others training — online national courses which support resiliency efforts and offer self-care strategies. The courses have been well received. In November-December 2020, the courses served nearly 1,500 participants — triple the amount typically seen during a similar period.
Marentette hopes to adapt these initiatives for both Indigenous and youth populations.
“We have heard from Indigenous communities that they are looking for supports in this space, to incorporate ceremony and traditions,” he says. And for youth: “Programs need to be built for youth by youth,” he says. “There are several community groups that are disproportionately affected. So, we need to make it OK to have conversations about mental illness.”
Despite challenges, Colquhoun says she has seen positive steps regarding mental-health supports.
“I know teachers that are incorporating yoga in the classroom, conducting mindfulness exercises, and prescribing journaling to help students regulate feelings,” she says.
She points to cities that offer physical activity challenges or have created online mental-health resources and discussion forums.
“All those little things can be helpful while building a robust mental-health system,” she says. “If everyone just admitted we’re all struggling, then this would change.”