Saskatchewan's advocate for children and youth released her 2021 annual report this week, highlighting the continued pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic on kids' mental health.
"It has become very clear how badly Saskatchewan's young people need our help," Lisa Broda wrote in her advocate's message at the start of the document, which was published Wednesday — just weeks after her office released a special report outlining youth mental health issues.
"It cannot be overstated that the aftermath of this pandemic has resulted in serious impacts on children and youth in their overall mental and emotional well-being."
Wednesday's report pointed to barriers some children in care faced over the last year with family visits or accessing support services.
It noted as well that some students across the province showed signs of decreased overall wellness, due to interruptions in extracurricular activities and poor access to in-person learning.
The document also said that four young people died by suicide last year, and there were 10 incidents reported involving youth trying to take their lives. The advocate's 2020 report recorded two youth suicide deaths and eight attempted suicides.
Meanwhile, overall deaths (24) and critical injuries or incidents (29) were down last year compared to 2020, which saw 38 child deaths and 35 critical injuries or incidents.
All of the suicide deaths and the majority of suicidal events last year involved Indigenous children or teens, which Broda says emphasizes the need for better access to culturally appropriate mental health services in the province.
She's hoping a new advisory council of six First Nations elders, which will offer guidance on mental health and addictions, will help bridge that gap and further reconciliation.
"This is an important contribution to our report and certainly to advance better culturally informed, culturally sensitive, culturally infused health care," Broda said in an interview with CBC News Thursday.
"It's key to better outcomes for Indigenous children."
Many deaths, injuries involved children in care
Dozens of kids and teens who died or were injured last year in Saskatchewan were in the care of, or receiving help from, a child welfare agency or justice service, the report found.
Tobie Eberhardt, assistant deputy minister of child and family programs with the provincial Ministry of Social Services, says she finds the data concerning, but says steps are being taken to address it.
For example, the government's child protection services manual has recently been updated to include policy requirements on suicide prevention and intervention, she said. Corresponding memos have also been sent out to foster families.
"If they're feeling like the young person they're caring for is struggling, it's really connecting back with us, the case worker and with the schools, and making sure we're getting them connected to whatever supports they need," Eberhardt said, adding social services staff have had updated mental health training.
Eberhardt said her department also set up youth advisory committees last December, which were officially launched earlier this year in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
The committees are led by non-profit organizations and made up of those who are currently, or used to be, in the foster care system.
The goal, Eberhardt says, is to learn more about their experiences in care so policies can be adjusted accordingly.
While Broda praised the provincial government in her report for starting up these advisory committees, she also noted that her office plans to follow up with how they're going.
"As a province, we still have a lot of work to do to address the long-standing issues and challenges young people face and the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated these matters," she wrote.
"We need the government to recognize through action that Saskatchewan children matter."
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available.
For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.
You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645, or chatting online.
You can contact the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.
You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.
Kids Help Phone can also be reached at 1-800-668-6868, or you can access live chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.