Impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of children and youth in Ontario


13 Oct 2021

Today is World Mental Health Day, a day where communities around the world come together to campaign for mental health education, awareness, and advocacy against social stigma. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had global economic and social impacts, and it continues to change the lives of people around the world.  Many Canadians have been affected by mental illness at some point in their lifetime.  It impacts individuals, families, communities, employment opportunities and health care systems.  The pandemic has made us all more aware than ever of the importance of mental health, especially among children and youth.

Children and youth were affected differently
For the majority of children and youth, school represents more than just learning.  For many it is an essential part of their lives that contributes greatly to the development of their mind, body and interpersonal skills.  After the closure of schools in March 2020, Ontario children and youth were forced to face adversity.  According to a recent Public Health Ontario (PHO) review, while struggling with isolation, social restrictions, online learning and an overall sense of uncertainty during this crucial stage of their development, these unanticipated disruptions led to an increase in mental health issues and distress.

As we know, children and youth typically have a lot of energy, and need physical activity and outdoor play time.  With the closure of schools, camps, sports, and group activities, a PHO summary report found that as opportunities for social and physical activity were lost, many experienced feelings of loneliness, stress and anxiety.  On top of it all, remote learning and more time at home resulted in a significant increase in screen time.  We as a society are reminded of the importance of equitable access to recreational and social opportunities for all children and youth across the province.

Mental health services
During the first few months of the pandemic the overall use of hospital services in Ontario decreased substantially.  This was likely due to the fact that many people didn’t want to expose themselves or their children to COVID-19 in a hospital setting.  However as the pandemic progressed, and the mental health symptoms of children and youth increased in severity, visits to the emergency room for mental health reasons increased as parents sought support for their children.  This surge in the use of hospital services highlights the need for increased community mental health resources and capacity to support all Ontarians.

Family Connections
Despite the negative impacts of the pandemic, for some children and youth it has served as an important learning opportunity that has fostered their emotional development as they transition into adulthood.  Having to spend so much time at home may have strengthened family connections, and encouraged a sense of independence and confidence.   Many also now have a greater awareness of the world around them, further developed empathy, have a newfound or increased connection to nature and the outdoors, and maybe most importantly, have developed the strength to face future challenges.

While this population experienced tremendous adversity, they also showed extreme resiliency.  With their support systems, they were able to learn more about themselves, and what they need as individuals to cope with hardship, and to be happy and safe.

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Updated 13 Oct 2021