The Impacts of COVID-19 on Youth Mental Health, Wellbeing & Service Access

By Princess Asiedu, YouthREX

Due to frequently shifting public health measures and the resulting isolation experienced by many youth during the pandemic, more and more young people are reporting issues with their mental health, and the need for professional help has increased to staggering levels. But how specifically has youth mental health been impacted, and how effective has our health system been at addressing these needs throughout the pandemic? To gain some insight, we spoke to Dr. Barbara Virley, a Registered Psychologist and Manager of Clinical Services at Layla Care, an online mental health platform that connects clients to mental health practitioners.

In your opinion, what mental health issues have increasingly been affecting youth throughout the pandemic?

In general, anxiety and depression tend to be the most common disorders among adolescents; this has undoubtedly intensified during the pandemic. I’m thinking of the Sick Kids study, which involved over 1,000 parents and kids aged 2-18, and over 350 youth aged 10-18. Stats Canada has released some data spotlighting youth mental health during the pandemic, and there is a great report from the Canadian Mental Health Commission.

We’re also learning that youth with pre-existing mental health issues, such as eating disorders, have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. The loss of structure and social opportunities as well as increased isolation has been difficult for many youth. We’re also seeing a dramatic increase in eating disorders among youth during the pandemic, and an increase in emergency department hospital visits.

In addition to factors such as isolation and lack of structure, heightened anxiety is likely related to this increase. Youth have turned more and more to social media during the pandemic, which likely fuelled unrealistic ideals and comparison, which are also factors that tend to fuel eating issues. This is especially concerning because eating disorders are one of the most life-threatening mental health issues because of the profound impact on one’s physical health, and the link between eating disorders and suicidal behaviours.

Do you believe that there has been enough support for youth during the pandemic in terms of mental health and wellness?

Support for mental health issues is a massive gap in our healthcare system. Our traditional Western medicine model is based on the idea that mental health and physical health are distinct, and at times focuses on physical concerns to the exclusion of emotional concerns. Coupled with this, mental health issues have historically carried a stigma. This is slowly changing, but the net result has been less acknowledgment of, and funding for, mental health research and treatment across the lifespan. Services also tend to be fragmented and difficult to access because of a lack of funding and long wait times.

Throughout the pandemic, this gap has been especially poignant, as the need for services has skyrocketed – and youth mental health services are no exception. The good news is that many service providers (both public and private) quickly pivoted to virtual services when we realized that the pandemic was not short-lived. This shift to offering virtual services has been a great way to reach youth where they are – they don’t need to travel anywhere, and they can still connect with support providers from home, as long as they can access a private space and reliable wi-fi (although this isn’t accessible for many youth). Virtual groups, which can be more affordable than individual sessions, have been another way that providers have tried to meet the growing need for youth to receive support in a timely way.

That being said, the need for service dramatically outweighs the ability of our public system to care for the youth who require timely access to service. Where I am, in Ottawa-Gatineau, many public resources have months-long waiting times – and I’m hearing the same from providers in other parts of the province. And not all youth or families have the finances to pay for private services. Even if they do, many private practitioners have been overwhelmed by the demand for services and are no longer accepting new clients.

What do you think could be done on a municipal or federal level to support youth who are facing issues with their mental health and wellbeing?

On a large scale, we need to rethink how we deliver services at each level of government. Philosophically, we need to start seeing health as integrative – that is, mental health and physical health as equally important parts of one’s wellbeing – and therefore deserving of equal funding and service options. We’ve come a long way over the past 20 years in talking about mental health, normalizing that it’s “okay not to be okay”, etc. But now it’s time to prioritize and invest in mental health and physical health equally.

On a practical level, I’d like to see streamlining of youth mental health services so that they are less fragmented. In a perfect world, we’d have a “one-stop-shop” for accessing mental health resources – for example, an online portal of available services that includes information about available services, how long wait times are, associated costs, etc. I also know that several organizations (for example, the Canadian Psychological Association) are advocating to have more types of mental health services included in the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). I’d love to see us move to a model where the provincial government moves more toward the “family health team” model of care, where several providers (for example, family physician, nurse practitioner, social worker, kinesiologist) work together as a team in a central location to provide accessible and consistent physical and mental health services to patients.

Finally, I’d love to see a course offered in high school that covers mental health issues so that 1) talking about these issues is normalized, and 2) youth would receive at least some basic education about how to take care of their emotional selves. I think we can also use the lessons we’ve learned to leverage technology to reach youth who struggle to access in-person services.

Editor’s note: these responses have been condensed for clarity and conciseness.

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