During a year of lockdowns and school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rising rates of child abuse and suicide attempts among Canada’s youth have sparked concern, according to a new report published Wednesday.
As students across Canada return to classrooms this month, the report by non-profit Children First Canada painted a grim picture of the declining physical and mental health of children as result of the pandemic.
“The impact of school closures and other aspects of the pandemic have really taken a heavy toll on children — and children are in a state of crisis,” said Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada.
In a worrying sign this year, the McMaster Children’s Hospital reported a three-times increase in admissions following a suicide attempt over a four-month period compared to 2020.
Meanwhile, in five pediatric hospitals in Ontario, admissions for eating disorders soared by at least 223 per cent above capacity in June 2021.
The lack of social interactions and uncertainty about the future only exacerbated the mental health challenges for children, leading to depression, anxiety, and increased rates of anorexia nervosa, pediatricians say.
“Losing control on their lives and not knowing what the future holds, I think, is very stressful for kids,” said Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto.
“It’s been a really, really stressful year on families and the outcomes are the poor mental health for the kids.”
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According to the report, there was also an increased risk of child maltreatment and child abuse observed since the pandemic began amid a decline in reporting across the country.
Since September 2020, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario saw twice as many infants for maltreatment concerns, specifically fractures and head trauma.
Banerji said because families were under increasing stress — caused by either job losses or trying to work from home — that boiled over to a rise in domestic violence and child abuse.
The abuse was also a result of confinement with everyone at home together and a lack of social support, said Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal.
“In the past, there was school, there were outlets, there were family gatherings, people had the support — and in the absence of these supports, families that were already at risk became at even higher risk,” she told Global News.
This latest report adds to a growing body of evidence over the past year that has highlighted the detrimental effect the pandemic has had on Canada’s youth.
According to Statistics Canada, 64 per cent of youth aged 15 to 24 reported a decrease in their mental health during the pandemic last year.
While many schools switched to online learning, a majority of parents believe the system has failed their children, an Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News this past June showed.
The COVID-19 crisis is far from over, but some fear it may have done long-lasting damage, and are calling for greater support, significant investment and monitoring in the years to come.
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“When children experience trauma in the early years of their life, whether it’s from issues like abuse, poverty, neglect, but also from grave threats to their mental health, that can have very long-term implications for their health and … make them more vulnerable to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and much more,” said Austin.
“We’re going to have to be studying and watching this for many months and years to come and to see the long-term impacts on children’s development over the future,” she added.
On the bright side, Kakkar and Banerji said because children are resilient, they were confident most will be able to bounce back quickly especially as schools reopen, but said policymakers need to prioritize them.
“What this pandemic has really shown us are the cracks in the system when it comes to child health and welfare,” said Kakkar.
With the federal election coming up on Sept. 20, Austin said children should be a ballot box issue and a priority for political leaders.
“Kids simply can’t vote,” she said.
“They don’t actually have a say in key decisions that are being made by our political leaders provincially and federally, and so it is often easy to discount their issues, to de-prioritize them.”
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