Opinion: Hamilton’s youth are in crisis and COVID restrictions are not the underlying cause


Published March 17, 2021 at 4:16 pm


Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) issued a report this week that painted a dire picture of youth in crisis over the last several months and beyond.

Among the findings were:

  • Youth admitted to McMaster Children’s Hospital for medical support after a suicide attempt has tripled over a four-month period, compared to last year and patients are staying in hospital longer due to more serious attempts.
  • 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 HHS hospitals with predominant symptoms of psychosis has doubled, with the large majority related to substance use.
  • HHS has seen an unprecedented number of referrals to their Eating Disorders Program—an increase of 90 per cent in a four-month period, compared to 2020. Admissions are projected to increase by 75 per cent over the 12 months since the pandemic started.

The report acknowledges that the reasons for the increases aren’t definitively clear, but “the shared hypotheses from hospital professionals and literature cite 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.”

Naturally, opportunistic agitators were quick to use the data from HHS as a tool to push an anti-mask and anti-restrictions agenda. Politicians looking to build a base have done the same with similar data.

But let’s be clear, the pandemic and ensuing health guidelines aren’t the underlying cause for the current mental health crisis, it has only sped up the clock on what’s been a ticking time bomb.

Blaming the mental health crisis on restrictions is lazy and disingenuous.

COVID-19 has exposed many holes in our system of supposed social and economical safety nets—whether it be income, housing, or protecting the most vulnerable members of our community.

In the process, the virus has shed even more light on the fact that people, and especially young people, are facing an unparalleled number of stressors that, to no fault of their own, are ill-equipped to cope with.

“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.”

Pandering policymakers can serve as a human billboard and help prop up a multibillion-dollar Canadian telecommunications company once a year by sharing a marketing hashtag all they want, but simply “talking” about mental health isn’t enough. In the more severe cases, it’s barely even a start.

Regions outside of Canada recognized the public health crisis and the need for expanded socialized mental health services long ago. They’ve included a broader selection of professional counselling services into their public health care model and removed many barriers.

Places like Japan, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, and Argentina have received top-marks for their efforts.

While free and affordable psychiatric care options do exist within the Ontario health care system, they often require unobtainable referrals and services are often stretched too thin due to inadequate funding and a lack of staff—which leads to limited space and long waitlists.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), those suffering face broader challenges beyond access to counselling.

“People with serious mental illnesses face many barriers to accessing primary health care,” writes the CMHA on its website.

“These barriers are complex and range from the impact of poverty on the ability to afford transportation for medical appointments to systemic barriers related to the way that primary health care is currently provided in Ontario. For example, people with mental illnesses who live in precarious housing may not have an OHIP card due to the lack of a permanent address or a safe place to store identification. Some physicians may also be reluctant to take on new patients with complex needs or psychiatric diagnoses, due to short appointment times or lack of support from mental health specialists. Consequently, access to primary health care has rated as a top unmet need for people with mental illnesses.”

According to studies obtained by the CMHA, mental illness puts individuals at greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis, and even certain forms of cancer (breast, colon, and lung).

It’s not hard to see the overall burden that mental illness places on our health-care system.

So while our public servants drag their feet, what can we do to assist our youth and help ensure they develop into healthy adults?

Dr. 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.”

Pires believes that as children get older, they become increasingly able to understand and express their emotions and need coaching to learn new coping skills to navigate tough times in life.

“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,” according to the HHS report, which outlined methods that can be used for coping.

They include establishing routines, exercising, eating regularly, getting regular sleep, staying connected to those you care about, and learning a new skill or finding an activity you enjoy.

While the pandemic has brought an extraordinary number of challenges, future events that pose similar threats to our youth’s mental and physical wellbeing are inevitable.

According to HHS, one in five children suffer from a mental health concern, but only a quarter of those struggling actually receive treatment.

That’s been the case even prior to the pandemic.

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.

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