You might have noticed that while the covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone, our children have been one of the most impacted groups in society by restrictions and other public health measures that have altered their routines, social groups, learning environments and more. Canadian and American schools have been among the most restricted in the world, with both countries implementing over 50 weeks of total school closures  that could stretch across three years. The worldwide academic fallout is estimated to include over 100 million children falling short of minimum proficiency reading skills, but the mental health implications have been even more serious.
Sickids hospital in Ontario, Canada suggests that the mental health of school aged children is suffering and that mental health symptoms have not been improving with the resumption of online learning. In fact, 70% of adolescents aged 13-18, and 50% of children aged 8-12 years old reported clinically significant symptoms of depression during Ontario’s second wave from February to March 2021 . These results build upon previous findings that 70% of school-aged children reported deterioration in one of the following six domains of mental health: Depression, anxiety, irritability, attention span, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions .
Children are suffering from the loss of community, connections, friendships, mentors, and organized activities that schools provide. With that in mind, there are a number of things that adults, family members, and communities can do to improve the wellness of young people:
1 – Facilitate a safe environment for children to speak about their feelings and frustrations
Talk to children about mental health and self care. Depressive symptoms are not a rarity in the current climate of children’s mental health, they are a likelihood. Encourage children to talk about what they are missing, what they need, and the changes they have noticed in their lives since the pandemic began. Empower children to introspect and put words to their feelings and as an adult listen to their concerns so that you can be the helping hand to give children the stimulation, social interactions, and rich experiences that they may be missing.
2 – Recognize the signs of declining mental health
Being able to detect signs of mental health changes, a concept called mental health literacy, is a crucial piece in solving the current children’s mental health crisis. Mental health literacy in youth and their caretakers can create better outcomes for those with mental health disorders, and facilitate earlier intervention to minimize suffering. Be vigilant for the following possible signs of depression: Lethargy, cynicism or pessimism, loss of motivation, uncharacteristic outbursts, lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. If you would like to consult an expert about the mental health of yourself or the children in your life, you can connect directly with board certified physicians on apptly.com.
3 – Actively create stimulation for children
Social institutions such as schools and day cares normally give children crucial stimulation and opportunities for growth. The replacement of school sports and extracurricular involvement with additional screen time during the pandemic could be a major contributor to the increase in symptoms of mental illness in children . It is important that parents, families, and communities create new safe spaces for children to participate with others. Outdoor activities, such as sports, clubs and extracurriculars are among the most readily available and safest options for children to maintain their social, mental and physical health.
4 – Be a strong role model
Be the example that children in your life can take a positive example from. Children’s stress levels are associated with parental coping mechanisms through the pandemic, suggesting that negative coping strategies in parents could have many potential consequences for children and that positive coping strategies could have a protective effect . Parents should focus on emphasizing what they can control, modelling healthy ways to work through emotions, being a source of optimism, and choosing healthy coping mechanisms through exercise and self-care.
As mental health challenges continue through the covid-19 pandemic it is important for adults to continue to advocate for the wellness of children and youth and find new evidence based strategies to take care of our most vulnerable populations.