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COVID-19 pandemic continues to greatly impact child and youth mental health: SickKids study

Home schooling during lockdown, boy working on school work with laptop and headphones. Compare Fibre

A recent study led by SickKids hospital is shedding light on the continued mental and physical health struggles young children and adolescents have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hospital says its latest findings show children across the province have continuously shown increased levels of anxiety and depression as a result of a series of provincewide lockdowns and school closures.

The study has over 2,700 participants ranging in age from two to 18 years old who live in Ontario. The hospital says it surveyed an array of participants at different times “to get a holistic understanding of how public health measures, including school closures, have impacted child and youth mental health and well-being.”

The study found mental health did not improve as the school year resumed virtually, showing that over half of 758 children aged eight to 12 – and 70 per cent of 520 adolescents – reported “clinically significant depressive symptoms” during the second wave in the winter.

“Among 2,206 participants, the researchers found a strong association between time spent online learning and depression and anxiety in school-age children (six to 18 years old),” wrote SickKids hospital.

“The more time students spent online learning, the more symptoms of depression and anxiety they experienced.”

In mid-April, the Ford government announced it would not reopen schools to in-person learning following the extended spring break after unions called for schools to close in the absence of stronger safety measures.

Following mounting criticism from parents and the opposition, among many, in late May, Doug Ford issued an open letter to educators, scientists, doctors, and unions asking seven key questions to find a consensus as to whether the province can safely reopen schools.

In response, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said at the time they believed schools could reopen safely on a regional basis for the last month of the school year.

Dr. Daphne Korczak, Principal Investigator of the study and child and adolescent psychiatrist at SickKids hospital, says school represents more than just academics for children and youth.

“For many, school and its in-person interactions and activities form the cornerstone of their lives,” she says.

“Our study found that despite periods of modified, in-person school, mental health measures did not improve significantly, including for those who attended school in person. This should serve as an urgent call to ensure that we do not replicate school as it was this past year, and get kids back to in-person learning, activities, and sports.”

The study also concludes that vulnerable families had greater economic hardship as a result of the pandemic, leading to higher levels of caregiver and child mental health symptoms and stress. 

The hospital determines that those with lower household income and parental education rates were “disproportionately impacted” by economic hardship, such as job loss and food insecurity.

“Our data overwhelmingly points to the significant and sustained mental health effects that the public health mitigation strategies and school closures have had on children, youth and their families in Ontario,” says Korczak.

“Kids need school, they need their friends and they need to have fun. As our focus shifts to reopening society, we must have meaningful conversations about prioritizing the needs of children and youth.”

On Tuesday, the province’s top doctor urged for all eligible people – particularly young adults and teens – to get vaccinated ahead of the planned return to schools in September.

Dr. Kieran Moore said people will need to have received two vaccine doses before the start of the school year to be fully protected, with the province’s latest update showing a discrepancy in vaccinations in ages 12-17 and younger.

As of Thursday, 59 per cent of teenagers within that age group are partially vaccinated while only 14 per cent have received two doses.

More than half of Ontario adults (51 per cent) are fully immunized while close to 80 per cent have received at least one shot.

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