Canadian teens still struggling with mental health even as pandemic wanes
When 16-year-old Abbey Keays thinks back to the early days of the pandemic — the lockdowns and online schooling — she can't help but reflect on what she and other teens have lost.
"During the pandemic, I personally felt a lot of negative emotions and some issues with my mental health," she said in an interview from her home in Hamilton, Ont.
"I think it's because we lost so much of what we were hoping our life to be."
Three years later, even as the pandemic wanes, Keays said she sees a lot of teens still struggling.
Clinicians say their needs continue to outweigh the services available to help.
"If you look at the different studies done since COVID-19, there has been a crisis — a mental health crisis — impacting children and youth," said Dr. Stacey Bélanger, an expert in pediatric mental health at Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal.
Bélanger, who is on the Canadian Pediatric Society's mental health task force, said pediatric centres have seen increases in hospitalizations and emergency room visits for mental health conditions such as eating disorders, anxiety and suicide attempts since the pandemic began.
"The needs were there before the pandemic and have definitely been increased since the pandemic," Bélanger said. "And I can't say we are anywhere near where we should be today to provide the services we should be providing to young people."
Teen girls struggling most, surveys suggest
In the U.S., data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests American teens' mental health has been worsening since 2011 and that continued in the pandemic.
According to its latest Youth Risk Behaviour Survey, there have been increases in the percentage of students who:
Experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Seriously considered attempting suicide.
Made a suicide plan.
Teen girls and LGBQ students (the survey did not include data specifically on students who identify as transgender) were particularly affected, with 60 percent of female students and 70 percent of LGBQ students feeling persistently sad or hopeless when the survey was taken in 2021.
Canadian studies have shown a similar imbalance.
Melissa Généreux, a public health physician in Sherbrooke, Que., noted a gender discrepancy in her recent survey of young people in Quebec.
Girls, transgender and non-binary teens reported higher rates of symptoms of anxiety and depression than boys.
Généreux has been surveying young people in several regions about mental health since early 2020 for the regional health authority.
Overall, about 20 per cent reported poor or bad mental health in a survey she conducted in January. It involved 18,000 people between the ages of 12 and 25.
Généreux said that's an improvement from the year before, when 30 per cent reported poor mental health, but still double what it was before the pandemic.
"To me this is really alarming and we need to be aware of that and to do something to support these young people," she said.
A neglected problem
Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa, said the Canadian healthcare system was already struggling to meet the mental health needs of young people before the pandemic, and they continue to rise.
"We've neglected this part of children's health for this long," said Vaillancourt. "It just blows my mind."
Vaillancourt said there is a lack of consistent nationally representative data around teens' well-being and that needs to change in order to better understand mental health needs.
She said while some kids did well during the pandemic — for example, virtual classes removed the stressors for some who had been bullied at school — others experienced significant distress.
Beyond the isolation and disruptions of the pandemic, Vaillancourt said social media and family stressors have also affected teens.
She said Canada needs a national mental health strategy for children and youth, and universal, school-based programs to help children develop social and emotional capacity.
New programs, and more needed
Geertika Jeyaganesha, 17, wanted to help a friend connect with mental health support, but she found available services lacking.
It prompted her to start her own organization, Nurtured Youth Community, which offers online workshops with a range of professionals around mental health.
"The primary problem with youth mental health is that the idea of having poor mental health is so normalized," Jeyaganesha said.
Her organization aims to "help people come out of that space," said the teen, who lives in Markham, Ont.
Keays, the teen in Hamilton, would also like to see more mental health support available for young people.
She is part of BGC Canada (formerly known as the Boys and Girls Club) and said attending programs there through the pandemic helped her maintain a sense of connection to others.
BGC Canada, along with the Canadian Mental Health Association, is calling on the federal government to increase funding for youth mental health services.
They point to a study from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which found that nearly half of young people who sought mental health support found it difficult to access.
"Either the care is unavailable or it's not covered by public health insurance," said Valentina Shamoun, member of BGC Canada's National Youth Council.
Tyler Black, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at B.C. Children's Hospital, echoed that concern. Black said he sees the lack of access to services as part of "continuing pre-pandemic trends that have been worsening."
More longitudinal studies are needed in Canada to really understand how teens are doing, and what effect the pandemic has had on existing problems, he said.
He said the levels of mental distress point to longer-term issues, including years of under-funding of services for kids.
The young people in Généreux's survey said they found it hard to talk to their parents, friends or teachers — relationships that could help people better deal with stress and anxiety.
Généreux recommends schools help students learn tools to process their emotions and recognize signs of mental health problems, and that governments prioritize investment in mental health services for youth.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:
This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.