By: Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
ith Ontario moving to get children back in the classroom, educators are being urged to keep mental health top of mind as the ongoing disturbances of the pandemic continue to pose unprecedented psychological challenges for young people.
An updated report by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, released Thursday, includes recommendations on mental health that underscore the importance of having accessible support services and increased in-person educational resources in Ontario schools to mitigate learning gaps caused by pandemic school disruptions.
The report also adds the need for schools to encourage social interactions whenever possible to address the health effects of social isolation on children’s mental health.
Sick Kids hopes its recommendations will be implemented by the province, following Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s announcement of a gradual return to in-person learning, starting with seven school boards in regions where infection rates are lower.
Greater Toronto Area students are still learning remotely, but the province said it aims to reopen schools when it is safe to do so.
The mental health of young people continues to be adversely impacted by the pandemic. A Sick Kids’ study cited in Thursday’s report revealed 70 per cent of children and adolescents in Ontario reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began. Much of the impact, the report added, is related to social isolation.
“We really value connections with other people, and kids do as well,” said Dr. Daphne Korczak, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sick Kids.
Things like playing with friends, interacting with their teacher and engaging in extracurricular activities are all crucial to a child’s mental health, Korczak added, and are things that have not been made possible due to the pandemic’s disruption on schooling.
The study found that while more than 50 per cent of children with pre-COVID-19 mental health challenges showed worsening symptoms, around 40 per cent of previously healthy children have also experienced high rates of depression, anxiety, irritability and inattention.
Eating disorders among youth are also on the rise during the pandemic, according to pediatric doctors across the country. Admissions to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Sick Kids have jumped around 30 to 60 per cent from 2019 levels, with cases primarily involving restrictive eating, including anorexia nervosa.
With these ongoing mental health challenges, Kimberly Moran, the CEO for Children’s Mental Health Ontario, said it is imperative that mental health remains at the forefront as infection rates lower and children gradually return to in-school learning across the province.
In particular, Moran said mental health aspects of the curriculum should be re-emphasized as soon as students return to the classroom.
“We have to recognize that we’ve had yet another period of disruption,” Moran said of the extended school closures after the holiday break in December. “Some of the things that started happening in September, we have to restart them again.”
This includes reminding children of the mental health support that is available to them in school, and emphasizing the need for open communication between teachers and parents should mental health needs arise.
Moran also echoed the need for children to engage in more social activities to help mitigate the growing anxiety many are facing about being away from friends and their normal routines.
“If we can ask our teachers to try and facilitate that as much as possible, that is also super important to get kids sort of back into the groove of being with other kids,” Moran said.
In response to Sick Kids’ recommendations on mental health, Toronto’s school boards said they remain committed to supporting students’ well-being both during the pandemic and beyond through their team of social workers and psychologists.
On extracurricular activities, Shazia Vlahos, a spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said social clubs and initiatives can be continued virtually during the closure period.
She added that per Ministry of education guidelines, “schools can offer clubs and organized sports if physical distancing is possible and equipment and spaces are cleaned and disinfected between each use.”
Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board, said some extracurriculars have not been possible in a remote environment, but running clubs may be possible depending on level of interest. These decisions are made on a school-to-school basis, he said.
The TDSB, Bird said, has also been bolstering up their mental health initiatives by increasing outreach of the board’s mental health support staff through educational YouTube videos, and by providing online mental health seminars for parents and caregivers. He added staff will be reviewing Sick Kids’ recommendations “to determine if any improvements to our existing supports can be made.”
To bolster mental health initiatives in schools, the Ontario government pledged $20 million in the summer, part of which was used to hire more mental health support staff for the province’s 72 school boards.
But Moran maintains boosting funding for community services is also needed, as that’s where most children receive treatment after a mental health issue is identified by a school or parent. Wait-lists for these services, she added, are still too long.
The cost of inaction on the part of everyone, Korczak said, could be steep with adverse mental health effects on children lasting way beyond the pandemic.
“The concern is that as time goes on, the opportunity to be resilient will decrease, so does kids’ ability to buffer day-to-day frustrations compared to their pre-pandemic selves also decreases,” she said.
Under the second lockdown, Korczak added, children’s resilience and strength has become more fragile.
With files from The Canadian Press