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The other side of COVID-19: Mental Health
Pandemic safety measures have had a negative impact on some aspects of children’s and teens’ health – including mental health. McMaster Children’s Hospital has seen a steady flow of youth in crisis, plus other alarming increases.
March 15, 2021

The other side of COVID-19: Mental health challenges prevalent in youth

Pandemic safety measures have had a negative impact on some aspects of children’s and teens’ health. Follow our series to learn more and take action.

1 in 5 children suffer from a mental health concern, but only 1 in 4 of those struggling actually receive treatment. View our fact sheet.

Crisis by the numbers

McMaster Children’s Hospital has seen a steady increase of youth in crisis.

Youth admitted for medical support after a suicide attempt has tripled over a four month period, compared to last year. Patients are staying in hospital longer due to more serious attempts.

A large number of these youth have reported COVID-related issues such as lack of social interaction, increased conflict at home, and the inability to rely on friends as main contributors.

In the same time period, youth admitted with substance use disorders has doubled compared to last year. In particular, the use of potentially deadly opioids has increased.

The number of cases admitted to hospital with predominant symptoms of psychosis has doubled, with the large majority related to substance use.

Eating disorders are “unprecedented”

Referrals to our Eating Disorders Program has increased by 90% in a four month period, compared to last year. Admissions are projected to increase by 33% over the 12 months since the pandemic started. “It’s unprecedented,” says clinical manager Paul Agar.

The reasons for the increase are unclear, but the shared hypotheses from hospital professionals and literature cites a combination of factors, such as isolation, risk of over exercising, limited or no school, or limited access to family physicians in the earlier part of the pandemic, as well activities where teachers and coaches would notice changes in health.

Social isolation and other factors

Mental health challenges during the pandemic can be a result of:

• Increased isolation and boredom
• Lack of day-to-day structure
• Family tension due to more time spent at home
• Anxiety related to attending school in-person or virtually
• Limited access to doctors, teachers, coaches and peers who may notice changes in health
• Additional stress due to systemic racism

“We are all coping with multiple stressors brought on by the current pandemic,” says Dr. Paulo Pires, psychologist and clinical director of Child & Youth Mental Health Outpatient Services. “We must be attentive to the unique impact of these stressors on children and youth depending on their stage of development.”

Ways to cope

As children get older, they become increasingly able to understand and express their emotions. They need coaching to learn new coping skills to navigate tough times in life. Parents and caregivers play an important part.

In times of uncertainty, anxiety increases and youth can become overwhelmed and have to work hard to feel in control. Learning a new skill and engaging in meaningful activities can increase our sense of control and recharge our batteries.

Here are some ways to cope that could work:

• establish routines
• exercise (for those who are not restricting their diets and who have not been advised by a health care provider to avoid exercise)
• eat regularly
• sleep regularly
• stay connected to those you care about
• learn a new skill or find an activity you enjoy

Pires says children and youth who are struggling with their mental health may display signs that caregivers can notice.

“Changes in eating, sleeping, and behaviours which last for many days or weeks may be a sign,” he says. “Changes in behaviour can include expressions of distress, disconnecting from loved ones, or acting out behaviours. Caregivers are encouraged to reach out for professional help for their children or for themselves as parents.”

Get the help you need

1 in 5 children suffer from a mental health concern, but only 1 in 4 of those struggling actually receive treatment. Help that will work for you is available.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, visit your local emergency department or call 911 right away.

If you or your youth is in need of mental health support, talk to your family doctor. In the Hamilton area, visit hamilton.ca/CYmentalhealth for resources or call Contact Hamilton at 905-570-8888.


McMaster Children’s Hospital Child & Youth Mental Health Program
Are you in crisis? View these resources.
Caring during COVID video series
Youth suicide prevention video series
Coast Hamilton
Contact Hamilton
Kids Help Phone