'On edge all the time:' Children's mental health nearing 'crisis' in Alberta's fourth wave, doctors say

In Calgary, psychiatrist Dr. Chris Wilkes has found a 200 per cent increase in emergency room visits for youth under 18 for anxiety, depression and eating disorders in the last eight months.

“We’ll probably see a worsening or high level of (demand for) mental health services for some time to come,” Wilkes said. “We have a crisis in terms of a demand on our services that is outstripping our resources.”

Dr. Rena LaFrance, a psychiatrist at Misericordia Community Hospital in Edmonton, said the severity of mental health issues she is seeing in patients aged four to 18 has doubled or tripled in the last few months.

The most common issues she’s seeing are anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, acute stress, ADHD and bereavement among children who lost family members to COVID-19.

That doesn’t get better when kids go online and back (to in-person learning),” she said.

LaFrance attributes the problem to children absorbing the fourth wave anxieties of their parents, more deaths in the news, and uncertainty about kids getting COVID.

For children under 11, who can’t yet be vaccinated, LaFrance said the uncertainty of not feeling fully protected is also contributing to anxiety.

“There’s been fear about bringing it home to their parents and grandparents,” she said.

“They might not be thrilled at getting an actual needle (but) my perception is they are thrilled about protecting their friends and family and themselves.” 

Normalcy still a ways off

For Calgary pediatrician Dr. April Elliott, the remaining restrictions in place show youth that normalcy is still a ways off, because kids are missing out on regular social interactions due to masking and distancing.

Right now they’re being told they can’t do so many things,” she said. “And they’ve also been in an era when screen use is necessary. And it’s hard to withdraw from (screens) when they’re socially necessary.”

The authors urged that a school-based national strategy on mental health be developed, as COVID “put a spotlight” on the problem.

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