At first, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a vacation, says Aditya Thakur, a Grade 12 student in Oakville. But, he says, the lack of structure quickly caused him difficulties with sleep and productivity — issues that he noticed many of his peers were also facing.
“I'm hearing people talk about how they're not eating all day because they're in bed or they’re doing class in bed because they're so drained from staring at screens all day with virtual school,” says Thakur, a youth-mental-health advocate with the New Mentality, a provincewide network of youth and adult allies advocating for change in the mental-health system.
Research suggests youth mental health has been significantly affected during the pandemic. A recent SickKids study, for example, finds that “children/adolescents with and without pre-existing psychiatric diagnoses reported deterioration” during the first wave and that it was associated with “increased stress from social isolation.”
Pre-pandemic, each of the New Mentality’s 24 youth groups across the province met in person a few times a month, says Mary-Anne Leahy, a program manager with Children's Mental Health Ontario, of which the New Mentality is part. The events were led by a youth leader with support from adult allies, who are staff from a local child and youth mental-health agency.
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When COVID-19 hit, Leahy says, meetings went online, though they kept the elements of in-person meetings: a focus on fun, checking in with each member of the group, and working on group projects. “We know overwhelmingly that our youth go to their peers and go to their friends way before they go to any adults in their life or service providers,” she says. “What we try to do at the New Mentality is create a healthy space for that sharing to happen.”
The priority throughout, Leahy says, has been to support youth: in Kirkland Lake, 140 kilometres southeast of Timmins, adult allies delivered groceries to members so that they could cook together on Zoom. In Kingston, the group organized a virtual “talent not required show” for other youth. In Halton, Thakur’s group created a podcast called Youth Minds Matter and an online course with the Reach Out Centre for Kids about understanding youth mental health. “The biggest goal that we have is breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness and mental-health problems,” says Thakur.
Leahy says that youth report that the groups have given them some consistency during the pandemic, in a setting where they are contributing to something meaningful and getting volunteer hours — with people who care about them: “Knowing that somebody really cares about you and has got your back through COVID and that there’s a place where, if you are having a really bad day, if you just want to say, ‘I feel prickly today, I hate COVID,’ you have that space to do it.”
While the New Mentality has successfully transitioned online, it’s not a treatment group. When it comes to mental-health care, Thakur says that many of his peers are finding the switch to virtual counselling to be a challenge — and that emotional cues can be missed. “A lot of my peers were not able to seek online support that they were previously attending, because they weren't able to speak to support workers or counsellors openly at home,” he says. “They were afraid of parents hearing.”
Prior to the pandemic, many youth in the province faced issues accessing appropriate care. Research published last October in Health Affairs showed that mental-health or addiction-related emergency-department visits for children and youth in Ontario increased by 89 per cent between 2006 and 2017. In January 2020, Children’s Mental Health Ontario released a statement noting that both wait-lists and wait times are increasing: 28,000 children and youth were waiting for mental-health services. And the wait for community mental-health services for children and youth can reach up to 919 days, or 2.5 years, the organization said.
“What we're hearing right now from our young people,” Leahy says, “is that they have to be operating in crisis in order to receive mental-health support.”
As well, Leahy says that it’s important for racialized youth — who, research shows, are already more likely to be the victim of police violence and arbitrary stops — to feel as if the system is working with them in mind. “We're hearing from racialized young people that they don't feel the system is meeting their needs,” she says. “We're hearing similar things from youth who identify as queer or as LGBTQ. They're saying the same thing — that the system's just not meant for them.”
In a 2018 report, From Crisis to Quality, the New Mentality’s youth-action committee offered several recommendations to the Ontario government, including ensuring effective treatment for youth with diverse backgrounds and identities.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care tells TVO.org via email that the ministry is “committed to addressing the mental health and addictions needs of all Ontarians, including children and youth” and notes recent investments in mental-health services for children and youth.
According to Irwin Elman, who served as Ontario’s child and youth advocate between 2008 and 2019 (until the Doug Ford government shuttered his office), it’s been groups like the New Mentality that have done the “heavy lifting” to move the needle on mental health in the province. “And we owe them a debt of gratitude,” he says. "I think that if government learned that, they wouldn't see young people as a problem, a service that was needed, a criticism of a system, they would see them as true partners, [which] would allow them to shine in the bright light of these young people's brilliance. They are not there yet, but the young people are."
Thakur says that staying in contact with his peers and friends has been one thing that’s proven helpful over the last year: “Even if you don't think someone is struggling, it's always valuable to maintain those types of connections over text, social media, or phone calls. I think the most important thing is being there for each other during these times.”