'The kids are not alright': Group sounding the alarm on children's mental health

One Canadian organization is sounding the alarm on children’s mental health, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has made a bad situation even worse.

Children First Canada and its partners are declaring a #codePINK, representing a pediatric emergency.

“The kids are not alright,” said Sara Austin of Children First Canada.

“They’ve suffered in silence at home for far too long. It’s taking an enormous toll on their mental and physical health.”

Austin noted the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on kids, because they’ve been confined at home for weeks or months on end, while also being cut off from extended family, friends, supports, and programs that are essential to their health and well-being.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen a 100 per cent increase in children being admitted for suicide attempts and a 200 per cent increase in children being admitted for substance-use disorders, including the use of deadly opioids,” she said.

CAN THE SITUATION BE TURNED AROUND?

Austin said the crisis can be turned around, but people need to act quickly.

“Every day, sometimes every hour, even minutes can make the difference in the life of a child, and it’s critical that we treat this as the crisis that it is,” she said.

She said the situation isn’t hopeless, noting that one thing that needs to be done is addressing the backlog in care.

“Children are often on waitlists for mental health services, waiting weeks, sometimes months, even years to access life-saving treatment. That’s not acceptable,” she said.

“We pride ourselves as Canadians on our public health-care system. But when it comes to the mental health, particularly of our children, that’s not the case, so we need to make some big, bold investments in the mental health-care of our children.”

Austin added that parents and guardians also need to check in on their kids and have an open dialogue to address issues around stigma and shame.

“Ensuring our kids come to us as their parents to confide when they’re struggling, to ask for help when they need it,” she said.

Austin noted that if someone is concerned about a change in their child’s behaviour, but the child is not verbalizing their concerns, they should reach out to a doctor. If it’s an urgent situation, they can also take their kid to a walk-in clinic or the emergency room.

Austin noted that Kids Help Phone is also available for free 24/7.

“Don’t hesitate. If you’re concerned about your child, reach out to a professional and ask for help,” she said.

WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK OUT FOR?

For those wanting to keep an eye out for the signs that a child may be struggling, Austin recommended paying attention to significant changes in their behaviour.

“Every child is different and they will manifest their concerns in different ways, but if you’re seeing even some signals around their changes of behaviour in terms of their activity,” she said.

She said another signal is if a child loses interest in something they are normally interested in or would want to do.

“Essentially becoming lethargic or anxious or really worried or depressed. These are all the things we need to be concerned about, watching for and intervening quickly,” Austin said.

- With files from CTV’s Michael Hutchinson.