The state of students’ mental health in Ontario is an ongoing concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for education staff who work alongside these youth each day.

Unfortunately, mental health concerns in youth have doubled during this school year, locally and across the province.

“The demand for mental health supports has drastically outpaced the resources available. We already didn’t have the resources to meet the needs, and now we’re really struggling,” says Sue Devlin.

Devlin works as the Mental Health Lead for the Kenora Catholic District School Board. Her and her team have been tracking how these last 16 months have affected KCDSB students and have implemented new supports and strategies to combat the recent increasing rates of mental health concerns.

Devlin’s report, presented to trustees virtually on May 18, says mental health referrals in KCDSB students have more than doubled during the 2020-2021 school year, with the number one reason being supporting students who are dealing with stress, worries and anxiety.

''Courtesy of the KCDSB. 

“We’ve seen a huge increase in referrals. We found that kids who struggled pre-pandemic [are] experiencing far more significant symptoms,” said Devlin, during her presentation. “Social isolation due to lockdown measures have had profound impacts on all of our students.”

SickKids Ontario has reported more than 70 percent of youth have experienced a worsening of their mental health since the start of the pandemic. Kids Help Phone says they’ve offered their services to over 1.2 million youth since March of 2020, over double what would typically be seen.

As well as mental health concerns, reports of youth developing eating disorders has significantly increased, with Devlin saying some sources are reporting increases of over 100 percent.

“For many, eating is a form of control,” explained Devlin. “When the world’s out of control, eating is one thing you do have control over. You really grasp on to that. It’s often a coping mechanism tied to stress.”

Devlin notes one of the major sources of anxiety for students surrounded the closing and reopening of their schools and the transition to virtual learning platforms. She says schools across Ontario have seen an increase in students struggling with their attendance, and social isolation can increase the risk of domestic or family violence.

Devlin notes an increase in online activity may be worsening mental health rates for youth. A study through Western University showed youth now spend 5.8 hours on screens each day, a massive increase from 2.6 hours prior to the pandemic. And that’s without including time spent in virtual learning.

With more youth spending more of their time online, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and the KCDSB is asking students to stay as safe as possible. The CCCP has reported an 88 percent increase in tips related to the sexual exploitation of children online since March, 2020.

But with in-person learning, Devlin says the school setting can give at-risk students a sense of predictability, structure and a sense of safety, and at-risk students face the most harm from the loss of in-person learning.

“Schools are essential. While I do fully support the public health guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19, however, in trying to keep the population safe, social distancing measures unwittingly placed children already facing disadvantage in harm’s way,” adds Devlin.

She also notes many families in northwestern Ontario do not have reliable access to broadband internet, and some families may not be fluent in English to assist the student with their virtual work, leading to additional stress and anxiety.

Despite these concerns, Devlin says the board’s Mental Health Team is committed to providing supports to every student in-need, and praised the board’s support for each of their schools having a dedicated mental health worker, counseling supports and the ability to connect with community supports.

One of those supports is the Kids in the Know program. The initiative through the Canadian Centre for Child Protection helped train students in over 30 KCDSB classes to help other students with safety concerns, resiliency, and to report any concerning behaviors to adults.

After Devlin’s report, trustees stressed the pandemic has affected their staff as well, and Devlin agreed it’s been difficult for many.

“Our teachers definitely have risen to this challenge, and have felt the impacts being one of the few service providers still on the front-lines. We typically connect educators with other mental health agencies who can help, but there is a gap for staff mental wellness.”

KCDSB TrusteesTrustees met virtually on May 18. 

Trustees later thanked the Mental Health team and Devlin for their ongoing work.

If you’re a student looking for additional supports or a parent/guardian for your child, you’re asked to contact your school’s principal or by emailing mhcovid@kcdsb.on.ca.

If you need immediate assistance, contact 911 or your local emergency department. Additional supports can be found through the KCDSB HERE.