A growing wave of Calgary kids and teens are in mental health crisis, and seeking help in hospital, even as the province's fourth wave of COVID-19 shows early signs of waning.
Doctors reported an unprecedented surge in the number of families turning up in hospital in the spring as children struggled with isolation, periodic school shutdowns and cancelled activities.
But after a slight lull of over the summer, and as the fourth wave peaked, kids and teens started flooding back in.
"We're seeing dramatically higher numbers of children seeking emergency department care and being hospitalized because of self -harming behaviours, depression, anxiety, ingestions. and these are really really concerning symptoms that don't just simply resolve quickly over time," said Dr. Stephen Freedman, pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Alberta Children's Hospital and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.
Pediatrician Dr. Sidd Thakore is witnessing it too.
"It's heartbreaking," said Thakore, who has never seen so many kids at the Alberta Children's Hospital in severe distress, including those struggling with severe eating disorders and children who've attempted suicide.
And they're much younger than before, he said.
"We're seeing kids eight and nine [years old] which is saddening. It's saddening …the impact COVID has had on kids' mental health — I think we're just seeing the beginning of it and we're going to be dealing with it for years to come."
Mental health visits up 36%
According to the latest statistics provided by Alberta Health Services, the number of kids 18 and under visiting the Alberta Children's Hospital ER for mental health concerns has jumped by 36 per cent — from 1,430 between January 2018 and July 2018, to 1,951 during the same period in 2021. Provincially, the increase was 14 per cent.
The increase in the number of kids and teens seeking help for self harm, which is counted separately, was even more dramatic. Alberta Children's Hospital reported 142 of those cases between January 2018 and July 2018, and 342 during the same period in 2021. That's an increase of 141 per cent.
"This is a consequence of what is going on in our world. And it is severe and it is really important," said Dr. Monique Jericho, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Alberta Children's Hospital.
She said there are long waits for community-based supports and she's heard from pediatricians who are desperate to find help for their patients. According to Jericho, schools and community therapists are resorting to sending struggling children to the ER because they are so high risk.
"There's an increased volume of presentations, an increase in need, but we do not have the associated increased level of resourcing," she said.
"We're still in this predicament where we're putting kids with mental illness into medical beds, where we're having to make very difficult decisions about, do kids stay in the hospital? Or can they be managed in the community? If they are in the community who is going to see them? When are they going to see them? … How do we ensure families and youths are safe?"
Depression and anxiety doubled
Sheri Madigan, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary, co-authored a study looking at global research on how the pandemic has impacted youth mental health. The studies her team reviewed included more than 80,000 youth worldwide.
"There's been essentially a doubling of youth depression and anxiety during the pandemic compared to what was going on pre-pandemic," she said. "During the pandemic, youth have really been in crisis."
Youth visits to emergency departments
Madigan said the ebb and flow of restrictions, suspended extra-curricular activities, temporary school closures, and isolation from friends have all taken a toll on children and teens.
"This wave might have been a tipping point for many youth where they just couldn't tolerate it anymore," she said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Stephen Freedman and his colleague Dr. Amanda Newton at the University of Alberta are leading a program at Alberta Children's Hospital and Edmonton's Stollery Children's Hospital designed to connect all children who show up to the ER with mental health concerns and aren't admitted to a follow-up appointment within 96 hours.
This program is being studied, but so far Freedman said they've provided every child who needs it with access to a mental-health-care provider in the community.
If you or someone you love is struggling, AHS recommends the following resources:
Call the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 or the addiction line at 1-866-332-2322.
If in crisis call 911 or visit the closest emergency department.