Pediatricians sound alarm over mental health crisis in youth

Pediatricians sound alarm over mental health crisis in youth

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Unprecedented number of kids turning up in doctor's offices, says group

Youth are missing school and friends during the pandemic, and it's leading to mental health issues, say a group of pediatricians. (John Robertson/CBC)

A group of Ottawa pediatricians say they're dealing with youth with a wide range of mental health issues — from eating disorders to major depression — brought on by the pandemic.

"We're seeing it in our offices," said Dr. Jane Liddle. "We have never seen this level of kids with major depression, suicidal thoughts and severe eating disorders."

Liddle is among a group of local pediatricians sounding the alarm about the rise of mental health issues among children, adolescents and teens — psychological effects of the pandemic they fear will linger after the health crisis is over.

Liddle belongs to the Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network, 70 local physicians who came together in the early days of the pandemic to share practical tips for securing protective equipment and safety protocols for patient appointments.

'We have never seen the level of kids with major depression, suicidal thoughts and severe eating disorders,' says Dr. Jane Liddle. (submitted by Dr. Jane Liddle)

"I think at the very beginning of COVID, we all took a big sigh of relief," said Liddle.

"There was the initial impression that COVID is not going to be a children's illness. Kids will be fine. They won't get sick. Sadly, that's not played out to be true."

It wasn't long before the doctors began sharing concerns about the range of mental health issues they were seeing among their patients.

Tripling of tantrums, nightmares: doctor

"In older children we are seeing an exponential growth in eating disorders, anxiety and depression," said Dr. Andrzej Rochowski, chief of pediatrics at the Queensway Carleton Hospital.

Among younger patients, Rochowski says he's concerned about symptoms of depression in children as young as five and six years old, as well as an array of behavioural changes that demonstrate that kids are not coping well.

"I've seen a doubling, if not tripling of temper tantrums, anxiety, night terrors, nightmares ... kids behaving a lot as if they had almost post-traumatic stress disorder," said Rochowski.

In one case, he recalled a distressed mother's call: "[She said], 'my daughter daughter's drawing pictures of big coronaviruses with the teeth eating at flowers. What should I do?'"

The pediatricians say it's clear that repeated school closures, coupled with prolonged online learning and the lack of access to friends and physical activities has taken a toll over the past year, and now there are new anxieties now that young people are getting sick with COVID-19.

"I think the most striking thing among all of this is that we are seeing problems in children who were healthy and well — children that were motivated the ambitious," said Rochowski. He said some children "genuinely lost the motivation to learn and to succeed."

Dr. Andrzej Rochowski says he's seen symptoms of depression in children as young as five and six. ( Submitted by Dr. Andrzej Rochowski)

The Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network recommends parents help their children by arranging safely distanced and masked play dates at parks and playgrounds. The group also look forward to getting the vaccine into the arms of young people so they can resume their normal lives.

But it warns that when in-class learning does eventually return, mental health programs will need to be in place to help young people with the transition.

"We are going to need additional resources in the schools to academically support young people and mental health resources in the schools, moving forward, to help heal and support children through this," said Liddle.

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