Why a Halifax psychologist says more guidance is needed for Canadian parents as COVID drags on

A psychologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax says public health departments across the country could be doing more to support parents by providing them with guidance around keeping their kids healthy during the pandemic.

Her comments come as COVID-19 in many parts of Canada hits the one-year mark.

“For some parents, it’s hard. They don’t know how to implement a physical activity program at home or they don’t know what’s the appropriate amount of screen time and what’s appropriate content and how to manage that,” Shannon Johnson said in an interview Monday.

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She said, for example, health departments could provide parents with strategies on how to help their kids feel safe during the pandemic, especially at a time when some parents and kids are not getting the help they need to lessen stress and anxiety.

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“Our system only has so much capacity, our public system, as well as our private system,” said Johnson.

“In my experience as a psychologist in private practice, everyone that I know is pretty booked up. Like it’s really hard to find people, even the ones I know and typically refer to or, even in my own practice, there hasn’t been any openings.”

She said this is related to COVID-19.

Vulnerable populations most at risk

In light of this increased need of support, Johnson said people and governments need to offer the most support to vulnerable families who are experiencing the greatest deterioration of mental health and well-being due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think we really have to consider children and families that were at high risk already,” she said. “We have to consider those individuals who already have stressors because of poverty or racism or food insecurity, because all of those things have just become intensified during the pandemic.”

“We really need to keep an eye on those vulnerable populations as we know they are much more affected by this than those who have the means to protect their kids,”  added.

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Johnson said it’s hard to consider what the long-term effects the pandemic might have on children and families, but based on previous outbreaks that happened in the past it does indicate these situations do have lasting effects.

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“We know when kids have more adverse childhood experiences and there’s other toxic stressors, then that can affect their development, their health, their brain development and really have important long term consequences.”

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic emergency measures

A new research from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) stressed that ensuring continuous access to mental health services will be an important mitigation strategy for all children and youth during the pandemic.

The study also showed that “a large majority of children and youth experienced harm to their mental health during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We found that overall, children were faring mostly worse, and occasionally better, compared to their pre-pandemic selves,” says Dr. Daphne Korczak, child and adolescent psychiatrist at SickKids and principal investigator of the study.

“We also found that the mental health impacts of the pandemic were greater for school-aged children during the first lockdown, underscoring the importance of in-class learning and extracurricular activities for children.”

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According to the study that was published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, greater stress from social isolation, including both the cancellation of important events and the loss of in-person social interactions, was strongly associated with mental health deterioration.

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The study looked into the the impact of COVID-19 pandemic emergency measures on child and youth mental health in Ontario. The research team said in a press release that they surveyed more than 1,000 parents of children and youth aged two to 18 years old, and nearly 350 youth between 10 and 18 years old, from April to June of 2020.

Across six domains of mental health — depression, anxiety, irritability, attention span, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions — 70.2 per cent of school-aged children (six to 18 years old) and 66.1 per cent of preschool-aged children (two to five years old) reported deterioration in at least one domain.

A smaller proportion, 19.5 per cent of school-aged children and 31.5 per cent of preschool-aged children, reported improvement in at least one domain.

‘Going to school is really critical’

Johnson said that people have been very fortunate in Nova Scotia for being able to send children to school.

“I think that is a huge protective factor for our kids.”

She said in places where kids have not been able to go to school, that’s a huge stressor for them and their families.

“I always had been in the position that (going to school) is really critical, if it’s safe from a public health perspective, which generally it has been here, and it’s so important because the social aspects and the learning aspect for some kids–that’s their safe place.”

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Read more: Montreal pediatric specialist answers questions about the coronavirus and kids

She also noted that some of the food programs offered at schools may be of benefit to kids who need it, and to get that through the school lessens that stress that comes with being isolated at home.

“It’s not just the learning, but just that the normalcy, having a routine and being with friends and being supported by other adults. And it gives their parents a break. So it also reduces the stress on parents, which is a risk factor for negative mental health of kids.”

“Keeping schools open safely and maintaining or adapting activities so they can continue to be offered will go a long way to protecting and addressing children’s mental health and well-being,” said Korczak.

“Encouraging group work at school, whether in-person or online; running extracurricular activities adhering to local public health guidelines; and ensuring ongoing communication between home and school are all tangible ways we can support children and youth during this incredibly challenging time,” he added.

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