The pandemic has not been kind to the mental health of children in our region. 

Acting Director of Children and Youth Services at Hands Family Help Network Trish Benoit says there was a 184 percent increase in requests for mental health services from April to December 2020, with 120 new requests coming monthly since August. “Lately, we’re seeing a lot more of that suicidal ideation, that self-harm, eating disorders. So, that’s been an alarming trend this past while,” Benoit says. 

With more serious mental health issues being brought to Hands, Benoit says there has been a 40 to 60 percent increase in clients needing long-term treatment. Waiting lists for such services have also jumped from a four-month wait to 12 months, which Benoit chalks up to issues experienced in the field before the pandemic. “Children and youth mental health was in crisis before the pandemic ever hit. We’re not funded adequately. We don’t have enough clinicians to deal with the need in our communities,” she said. 

Since the pandemic hit, Benoit says there has been more government support which has allowed Hands to hire more social workers and hold more clinics. 

Benoit says there is not a single cause for the jump in mental health issues, rather, a culmination of factors in the pandemic; however, she fears kids learning remotely is taking them away from essential services they could access in school. “In the school environment, you have those mental health supports,” Benoit noted. “Unfortunately, as soon as we go to online learning, we lose a lot of those supports.”

So, what can children (and parents) do to improve their mental health?

Benoit says one tip is to stop dwelling on the things that you are not able to do during the pandemic. “I would recommend trying to shift the focus to things we can do,” she said, suggesting family bike rides or game nights. “Maintaining that social interaction within your social circle while staying safe.” 

Offering a form of routine such as consistent wake-up and bedtimes, Benoit says, can also help children. “That certainty provides comfort to kids during a time of uncertainty,” she said. 

Benoit also recommends parents take care of themselves so they can better care for their children. She says that can be done by talking about your feelings. “It’s okay to talk about the pandemic and missing friends and validate those feelings they might be experiencing. That makes home a safe space to talk,” she explained. 

If parents notice a change in their child’s behaviour, Benoit says to try and talk to them about it, adding there are many mental health supports available through Hands or otherwise. 

Written by Greg Bowman