Sask. study examines youth mental health during pandemic

One in five adolescents reported an increase in suicidal ideation and one in 10 reported an increase in self-harm after the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Saskatchewan survey.

"That was quite alarming to see that, really, there's no other way to say it," said epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine, one of the principal investigators.

"First of all, we really need to identify who those children are on an individual basis. And, and we need to engage them and understand why they are having these thoughts and how they could be assisted."

The "See Us, Hear Us" study collected responses to an online survey from 510 pairs of Saskatchewan children and youth and their parents or caregivers. The survey ran between March 19 and July 27, 2021. Muhajarine said while the survey was affected by selection bias – people with good or bad responses being more likely to participate – the robust sample size allowed for tight confidence intervals.

The researchers wanted to learn about the mental health of children, youth, and their families during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Saskatchewan, how they were coping and if they were receiving the support they needed.

"You know, and I think the whole pandemic has been unprecedented how long it has been going on. Children have never experienced anything like this before ... the disruption, there's fear of the virus and COVID-19 and having a family member catch it, and having them end their lives, unfortunately, is a real fear, but so are all the disruptions that it has created in the schools and so on," Muhajarine said.

"So, you know, this sometimes with some children, for a number of reasons, shows up as suicidal ideation, so I think that is something that we really need to be mindful of."

He said those factors also explain why six to 15 per cent of respondents reported an increase in smoking, cannabis use, or alcohol use.

"Not only in children but also in adults, substance use, whether it be cannabis or other substances, is used as a coping behaviour," Muhajarine said. "We weren't surprised to see that and I think we have to keep monitoring this."

Overall, up to that point in the pandemic 38 per cent of children and youth said their overall mental health was worse and 22 per cent said there were lot of fluctuations. Nearly one out of four kids said they needed mental health support.

The team is planning to conduct a second round of the survey focusing on the 2021-2022 school year.

That time period featured good parts, such as the availability of vaccines for children, but also disruption in the form of opposition to public health measures and the Freedom Convoy, Muhajarine said.

"Children are exposed to all of this, and they're not they're not totally oblivious to all of this, so I think we need to understand how, in the second year, children continue to cope with their mental health issues."

Results are expected this fall.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)
  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)
  • Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)
  • Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

If you need immediate help call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.