Mental health concerns skyrocket for children during Covid-19


Dear Adele,

Covid-19 seems to be taking a toll on our son. He is out of in-person school, away from his extracurricular activities, and has little chance to interact with peers. He appears mopey, disconnected and disheartened about his life. We are worried about him but really do not know how to ameliorate the situation during the pandemic. Ideas are welcomed.

Distressed Dad


Dear Distressed Dad,

The behavioural symptoms you are seeing in your son are symptomatic of mental health issues brought on by isolation, lack of structure, little socialization, solitary lifestyle, insufficient physical exercise and thoughts of powerlessness over the situation to name a few variables. Many children like yours are experiencing feelings of anger, anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Clinics and support groups for mental health issues are facing an increase in demand for services in Ottawa, at this very moment in time due to the impact of Covid-19.

According to Jessica Wong of CBC News, in an article entitled Teens feel disconnected, hopeless due to Covid 19, raises alarm for parents, experts, teenagers are missing their spirit days, intramural sports, in-person education, extracurricular involvement and being with their peers. They are feeling alone and with every day, ordinary stuff being shut down, they lose their motivation. This lifestyle can exacerbate loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Researcher Nikki Martyn of Guelph-Humber University also found that children and teenagers are feeling sad, isolated and anxious during Covid 19. Motivation has been affected and they are disillusioned about the future. They feel that no one cares and that the impact of Covid 19 is “just too much.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in an article entitled Mental health during Covid 19: signs your child may need support, reminds parents that children are often unable to express their feelings verbally and that their behaviour speaks for them. In younger children, fussiness, wakeful sleep, feeding issues, separation anxiety, tantrums, bedwetting, conflict and aggression in play are behaviours of concern. For older children and teenagers, changes in mood, changes in behaviour, loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances, changes in weight or eating patterns, cognitive problems, diminished effort and interest in school, changes in hygiene and appearance, increased use of drugs or alcohol, and thoughts of dying or killing oneself are all behaviours of concern.

We know that the rates of suicide for teenagers increase during periods of exacerbated stress, so take any talk about suicide very seriously. According to CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) suicidal ideation is at record levels among Ontario students. Even before the pandemic 1/6th of students seriously thought about suicide during the previous year and 1/5th of students had serious symptoms of anxiety or depression. Dr. Hayley Hamilton writes that we “likely underestimate the degree of suicidal ideation and psychological distress currently experienced by Ontario students.” The percent of students reporting unmet needs for mental health support was at 35% in June 2019 and no doubt is higher today.

An article by Sarah Myruski and Kristin Buss out of Penn State University entitled Teens and anxiety during Covid 19 suggests our adolescents are facing a never before encountered emotional challenge. They are already very vulnerable because of their stage of development emotionally, socially and cognitively. 70% of teenagers name anxiety as the major problem for teens and that figure is augmented by the pandemic. The authors write “compared to pre-Covid 19, anxiety severity among our respondents has increased 29%, largely driven by significantly heightened generalized anxiety (up 45%) and school anxiety (up 143%).”

So Distressed Dad, it is wise that you are concerned and proactive in finding solutions as best you can during these difficult times. While our leaders are doing their best to deal with the repercussions of Covid-19 virus on the whole population, you might want to try some of the following ideas with your boy:

1: Be honest with your son and explain what is happening simply.

2: Talk and listen to your son, giving him the opportunity to vent his feelings. Acknowledge them and encourage him to tell you about them.

3: Help your son find ways to express feelings through such things as music, art, physical exercise, dance, drama, writing, conversations, meditation, yoga, mindfulness etc.

4: Teach your child how to manage his emotions (adaptive emotion regulation).

5: Be sure the adults in your home are supporting each other, so they can model positivity for your son.

6: Be sure your child’s day has lots of structure in it with regular routines.

7: Check in with your son many times during the day by phone or video chat.

8: Encourage opportunities for peer support.

9: Ensure a positive school/learning environment.

10: Ensure your son meets the daily physical activity guidelines of one hour per day of moderate or    vigorous exercise.

11: Take care of yourself and seek support.

12: Arrange regular and plentiful family time such as movies, bike rides, runs, walks, board games or food preparation and family meals for example.

13: Stay positive and communicate that the future is brighter ahead.

14: Be aware of professional support services for mental health, and access them if your concerns become more serious. Note that the phone number for Crisis Services Canada is 1-833-456-4566 and the Kids Help phone number is 1-80-668-6868. Your family physician should be able to refer you to appropriate mental health professionals. The Family Service Centers in Ottawa have excellent counsellors with some free sessions and reasonable rates thereafter. Immediate help can be gotten by calling 911, or by visiting the emergency department at your nearest hospital.

I wish you the best Distressed Dad. I will leave you with a few inspiring quotations:

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.” — Glenn Close

‘Mental health is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going.”   — Noam Shpancer PhD

‘Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” — Fred Rogers

Sincerely, Adele

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