Children’s mental health needs surge due to COVID-19

Apr 30, 2021
By Mirette Bahgat, Child Protection Technical Specialist for World Vision Canada

I vividly remember that time last March when the pandemic became real for so many of us in Canada. As our office shut down, borders were sealed, and lockdown measures came into full force ---it immediately reminded me of my home country of Egypt during the Arab Spring

The sudden turmoil in Toronto felt eerily similar to Cairo, a once bustling city that was quickly shut down with a newly imposed curfew. Canadians now have lived experience with shuttered up shops and other facilities along dark and empty streets. And many of us have lived with the fear of leaving the house or have worried if we can readily get the food and medicine we’ve always taken for granted. 

Thankfully, Canadians for the most part, haven’t experienced deeper instability and lawlessness during this crisis as I remember in Egypt 10 years ago. The unbearable worry about losing one of my family members who joined other neighbors to protect our building from thugs’ attacks in the absence of police protection.  Afterwards, even as things slowly went back to normal, I still struggled with the long-term effects of stress physically and mentally. 

COVID-19 and mental health in Canada

It’s really no surprise that the disruption of services, life-threatening conditions, and the stress of uncertainties caused by COVID-19 has taken its toll on the mental wellbeing of Canadians. 

Coronavirus prevention, treatment and vaccination has been prioritized, and mental health has been sidelined, or worse yet, stigmatized. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone is feeling the same way, so stop fussing about it. We keep hearing these statements in the media or from family and friends, but the psychological toll of COVID-19 is anything but normal. 
A young girl wears a mask and holds a notebook and penCOVID-19 has taken its toll on the mental wellbeing of Canadians, including children. Photo: Kelly Sikkema

One in five Canadians reported high levels of mental distress one year into the pandemic. CBC reported that the number of young people admitted to McMaster Children’s Hospital after a suicide attempt has tripled over a four-month period; referrals to eating disorders program increased by 90%; and youth admitted with substance use disorders has doubled compared to last year. The psychological impact is likely to continue long after the pandemic is over, and will leave scars, some of which are irreparable. 

Public Health Ontario highlighted that exposure to stress and adverse childhood experience can negatively and permanently affect brain development and increase vulnerability to poor health outcomes across our lifespan. Long term stress could lead to chronic problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, depression, among others. The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated to be $51 billion per year. 

COVID-19 and mental health in fragile countries 

We can all better imagine how that sense of fear, uncertainty, and isolation Canadians are experiencing because of COVID-19, can actually multiply the mental health challenges faced by millions of people worldwide living in low-income and fragile countries. People already surviving day to day amid conflict and war, whose lives are now further aggravated by the pandemic. Just imagine living in a country where leaving your home doesn’t only make you vulnerable to catching the virus but might expose you to getting kidnapped or caught in a crossfire; where safe spaces created to educate and entertain children in a protective environment are forced to shut their doors because of the pandemic. 
A mother wears a bandage on her head and hugs her young son.Huwaida holds her son Ahmad, 9, in their house in front of the glass window that broke in the August 4, 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, which devastated large portions of the city. For the past year, Ahmad and his family have been recovering from their physical, emotional, and economic injuries amid a global pandemic. Photo: George Mghames

A recent study from World Vision in partnership with War Child, looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the mental and psychosocial wellbeing of children living in conflict affected countries including, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Jordan, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and South Sudan.

The study revealed that the number of refugee children who say they need mental health support has more than tripled because of COVID-19.

COVID-19 and its socioeconomic impacts have added more psychological burden to children already experiencing high levels of distress due to violence and displacement. More than half (57%) of children living in fragile and conflict-affected countries expressed a need for mental health and psychosocial support as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. This rises to 70% for refugee and displaced children as opposed to 43% for children in host communities. Fear of infection and death from the virus topped the list, followed by fear of further deepening poverty and economic hardships due to the lockdown and other containment measures. Nine in ten respondents highlighted that the pandemic negatively impacted their access to key services that were already suffering under conflict, such as interruptions in education services or access to playgrounds and leisure activities. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that for conflict-affected low-income and middle-income settings, more than one in five people in post-conflict settings has depression, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, and that almost one in ten people in post-conflict settings has a moderate of severe mental disorder at any point in time. 

Investing in essential mental health care

Here in Canada, our government has provided some mental health services to Canadians in need during the pandemic through government and privately funded programs, such as Wellness Together Canada, and the Canadian Mental Health Association BounceBack program, among others. However, the alarming rise in suicide attempts and substance use tells us that more work needs to be done for more equitable access to both prevention and mental health treatment services.

In fragile countries, international assistance typically prioritizes the most urgent and basic needs like safe drinking water, food, shelter, and emergency health care, over mental health, and psychosocial support. 
Mental health and psychosocial support services are often perceived as non-essential or even a luxury, leaving governments and private investors reluctant to invest.
A young girl from Democratic Republic of Congo sits at a desk in a classroom.Gloria, 17, comes to the child-friendly-space in Oicha, eastern DRC with her 1-year-old son. Through group therapy, skills training, and parenting support, staff are helping her overcome the loss of her childhood to conflict and equipping her with the tools she needs to rebuild her life. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt

We urge the Government of Canada to prioritize the mental health and psychosocial needs of children and families in sudden and long-term global crises. We need to ensure that basic mental wellbeing and resilience services like access to psychosocial first aid, basic counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy approaches are integrated into education and health systems, while investing in building a sustainable specialized mental health system in country. 

The international community must come together to ensure that mental health policies and infrastructure are prioritized. They can no longer be considered a luxury – they must be recognized as a necessity.

Mirette Bahgat is a child protection technical specialist at World Vision Canada. With more than 10 years of experience working with children and youth globally, she is a strong advocate for child mental health and wellbeing. Mirette holds an MSc in Psychology from the University of East London.

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