Pediatricians sound alarm over mental health crisis in youth

A group of pediatricians in Ottawa say they are dealing with young people with a wide variety of mental health problems – from eating disorders to major depression – caused by the pandemic.

“We see it in our offices,” said Dr. Jane Liddle. “We have never seen this level of children with major depression, suicidal thoughts and severe eating disorders.”

Liddle belongs to a group of local pediatricians who are raising the alarm about the rise in mental health problems in children, adolescents and teens – the psychological effects of the pandemic that they fear will continue after the health crisis has passed.

Liddle is part of the Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network, 70 local doctors who gathered 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 children with major depression, suicidal thoughts and severe eating disorders,” says Dr. Jane Liddle. (submitted by Dr. Jane Liddle)

“I think we all took a deep breath of relief at the start of COVID,” said Liddle.

“The first impression was that COVID would not become a childhood disease. Children will be fine. They will not get sick. Unfortunately that is not true.”

It wasn’t long before the doctors began to share their concerns about the range of mental health problems they were seeing among their patients.

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“In older children we see an exponential growth in eating disorders, anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Andrzej Rochowski, chief of pediatrics at Queensway Carleton Hospital.

Among younger patients, Rochowski says he is concerned about symptoms of depression in children as young as five and six years old, as well as a series of behavioral changes that show that children are not doing well.

“I’ve seen doubling, if not tripling, tantrums, anxiety, night terrors, nightmares … children who acted a lot as if they had near post-traumatic stress disorder,” Rochowski said.

In one instance, he recalled a troubled mother’s call: “[She said]’,’ my daughter draws pictures of large coronaviruses with the teeth feeding on flowers. What should I do?'”

The paediatricians say it is clear that repeated school closures, coupled with long-term online learning and the lack of access to friends and physical activities, have taken their toll over the past year, and now new fears are emerging as young people are getting sick from COVID-19.

“I think the most striking thing about all of this is that we see problems in kids who were healthy and healthy – kids who were ambitious motivated,” Rochowski said. He said some kids “really lost the motivation to learn and succeed.”

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

The Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network recommends that parents help their children by arranging safe, remote, and masked play dates in parks and playgrounds. The group is also looking forward to getting the vaccine into the arms of young people so that they can resume normal life.

But it warns that when classroom learning eventually returns, mental health programs will be needed to help young people transition.

“We will need additional resources in the schools to support young people academically and mental health resources in the schools to move forward, to help heal and support children through this,” said Liddle.

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