Measuring COVID’s toll on young psyches

·3 min read

Education department officials and research partners can expect to learn about a spike in anxiety disorders, insomnia and weight gain among the student population when they probe the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teenager health.

Ahead of the 2022-23 academic year, the Manitoba government has set aside funds to undertake two new special research projects.

A total of $250,000 has been earmarked for a survey of grades 6 to 10 learners’ “health and well-being, social environments and health behaviours.”

A matching sum will be spent on a partnership with the University of Manitoba’s health policy hub to assess and understand the novel coronavirus’ effects on learning outcomes.

Dr. Marni Hanna saw the toll excessive screen time was taking on her patients long before the virus arrived.

“But it got much worse when they had to depend on their screens to communicate with each other and do school work — and that has led to concerns from parents about disrupted sleep and these kids being addicted to their screens,” the president of the Manitoba Pediatric Society said.

Hanna said significant weight gain, mental health challenges and sleeping issues, owing to late-night cellphone and computer use, which can suppress the production of melatonin and disrupt sleep, have been common concerns as of late. Poor sleep results in behaviour problems, she noted.

The pediatrician welcomes new research on the ongoing effects of public health orders on children and youth. Hanna said she hopes she will have the opportunity to weigh-in via survey.

In the fall of 2020, not long after regular in-person classes resumed across the province for the first time since COVID-19 was detected on the Prairies, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society polled its members. More than 800 teachers participated in a study on the state of their schools.

The results show 62 per cent of respondents found it difficult to re-establish connection and community in their classrooms, 67 per cent disclosed being challenged in addressing student emotional and social concerns, and 75 per cent indicated they grappled with recovery learning.

Nine out of 10 respondents said students were having difficulty readapting to school routines.

“Kids really need structure, even older kids, even high school students — never mind Grade 1 and 2 kids. They need structure, they need routines and when they go to school every day, that’s where kids thrive,” said Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the union which represents upwards of 16,600 educators.

Martindale said teachers know best when it comes to tackling learning loss, but they must be supported in doing so. The union continues to advocate for the province to develop “an adequate and sustainable (funding) model” for K-12 education, he said.

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, called the province’s latest announcements “good initiatives,” but indicated what divisions really need is increased funding to hire more clinicians.

“The needs of our students were far outpacing the resources that were available prior to the pandemic,” Campbell said, noting there are two mental health support workers overseeing roughly 3,000 students in his division in the Interlake.

Limited clinician rosters mean there are lengthy wait times for assessments and the introduction of in-class support — for example, the hiring of an educational assistant in response to a formal diagnosis — is delayed, he added.

Hanna echoed concerns about youth “not necessarily getting the help they need,” due to increasingly high demand for in-school and private assessments.

While pediatricians have been fielding a significant number of calls about anxiety and depression since March 2020, she indicated phone lines have quieted since the spring.

“It’s really benefited kids to be back at school, back doing their sports and extracurricular activities and being able to hang out with friends,” she said.

A provincial spokesperson said the partnership with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy aims to produce insights that can be used across the K-12 system “to inform planning in the context of COVID-19 recovery.”

Maggie Macintosh , Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press