Lately, when 15-year-old K (name withheld to protect identity) arrives outside her school in Campbell River, nervousness sets in.
Her legs start shaking, her entire body begins to tremble and she gives way to uncontrollable sobbing.
Her parents eventually turn the car around and take her back home, to try again the next day.
The heightened anxiety attacks are new for both K and her parents, especially because their daughter is an above average student and has never had a problem going to school until a couple months ago, says K’s mother.
To add to the dilemma, new COVID-19 regulations require students to sit at one place for five hours with minimal interactions with their classmates and focus on one subject for five straight weeks. Missing one day of school leaves a student with a gap of five hours of math class, says K, and adding further to her anxiety.
When K spoke to the Black Press Media, it was difficult for her to articulate what was going on, since it was a novel experience. But she wanted to speak about it because “many” of her peers are in the same boat.
The disruption of routines and isolation – ushered in by the pandemic – has caused a massive surge in mental health issues among youth, says Dr. Jan Coetzee a Campbell River family doctor. According to him, structure is very important for children and when that changes due to disruption, it affects their mental health.
Many of Coetzee’s young patients have been reporting issues like anxiety, panic attacks, depression and suicidal ideations for the past year.
While psychiatrists are seeing behavioural relapse in individuals who are on medications and were reasonably well controlled previously, they are also witnessing an increase in number of youths without previous diagnosis.
“It’s not just a pandemic of coronavirus in Campbell River, we have a pandemic of mental health exacerbation as well,” says Coetzee.
Wendy Richardson, executive director of the John Howard Society of North Vanouver Island said there is a spike in mental health issues among children as young as 11.
“Our mental health counselors have been working with kids with a lot of additional anxiety and suicide ideation,” she said and added, “It has been alarming… Suicide is high on our radar.”
“The reason I say it’s scary is because, historically, it’s not an age group where suicide ideation has been high on our list of things they are dealing with,” she said.
In 14 years of his practice as a physician in Campbell River, Coetzee also said that this is the first time he has seen such a serious spike in mental health issues among a young age group. (Campbell River previously had a spike in deaths by suicide between 2008 and 2010 in the city).
Since January, Campbell River’s School District 72 had two cases of deaths by suicide – a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. These deaths have raised an alarm for parents in the community.
“Parents are afraid, I hear people say things like ‘I don’t know how to be a father/mother anymore.’ They feel ill-equipped to deal with such situations as they don’t want to push their children to the edge,” Coetzee said.
But there are many who are still not aware of what is going on with their children since a lot of them prefer not to talk to their parents about their issues. In such instances, Coetzee recommends youths call counsellors and experts on helplines.
School District 72 superintendent Jeremy Morrow says schools in the area were concerned about mental health issues even before the pandemic set in. The pandemic has amplified it.
“We have seen an increased number of referrals all the way down to elementary, in regards to anxiety and other mental health concerns,” says Morrow. The school district has added additional support to deal with this, including a multi-agency approach, he says.
According to Richardson, mental health issues are also exacerbated by social media – especially the heavy reliance on social media by children to stay connected during isolation.
With the pandemic “dragging on” there’s a further increase in “anxiety and despair” among this age group as they begin to lose hope about things going back to normal.
“Young people are resilient enough to sudden change,” says Richardson, but prolonged ones like the extended shut down has been hard on them.
If anything, the pandemic has only brought a lot of underlying issues to the forefront, says Coetzee. Therefore he recommends a realistic approach to mental health for youngsters – exercise, eat three meals a day, get six to eight hours of sleep, seek counselling when in need. He also advises families to “repair core values” which includes working together as a unit and establishing lost connections.
“Most of my young patients are compliant to these recommendations and I’m seeing positive results,” he says.
Unless these fundamental changes are incorporated, even if the pandemic is over and people are vaccinated, this cycle is not going to be over, he says.
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Helpline numbers and resources for BC:
Crisis lines across BC can be found on www.crisislines.bc.ca
Online service for adults: http://crisiscentrechat.ca/
Online service for youths: www.YouthinBC.com
Mental health support/ Centre for suicide prevention : 310-6789 (no area code needed)
Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre caters to parents, caregivers, youth and young adults. Compass Mental Health : 1-855-702-7272 email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Youth Line: 647-694-4275
First Nations Health Authority, Native youth crisis hotline: 1-877-209-1266; Trans Lifeline: 1-877-330-6366.