Better access to support needed for kids impacted by pandemic: report

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The pandemic has worsened hunger, mental health and educational outcomes for children in Alberta who need better access to supports, states a provincial government report issued Friday.


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Telephone, online and roundtable surveys conducted with 10,000 Albertans from May to July this year found noticeable impacts on poverty due to loss of employment and possibly long-lasting effects of the response to COVID-19 on the mental health of children and youth.

“These professionals reported increased stress, anxiety, grief, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide and suicidal ideation, and substance misuse among children and youth,” states the Child and Youth Well-Being Review.

“Some suggested that the stresses of the pandemic have been responsible for mental health concerns in children and youth who had not previously struggled with their mental health.”

Older youths aged 15-18 and particularly females were more likely to report negative impacts, said the report.


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But it also found more than seven out of 10 youths had developed normally during the months marked by reduced social interaction, virtual schooling and public health restrictions.

Most affected by both the direct health and mental stress dynamics were Indigenous and racialized communities, it said.

“At-risk children and youth have been maybe the hardest-hit sometimes dealing with food insecurity and housing with parents who are facing their own struggles with the economic crisis we’ve seen,” said Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schultz.

The review also highlighted the fact addressing the issues started from a position of limited knowledge.

“Overall, panel members were struck by the limited availability of health system data that tells the story of health impacts for children and youth,” it said.


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But the report did find physicians’ claims of substance use among those aged 17 and under increased by 37 per cent in 2020 over the previous year but it decreased in the first two months of 2021.

It also found suicide rates among younger Albertans remained stable in 2020 though it noted there’s usually a lagging effect, and that in the first months of 2021, “there was a substantial increase in self-harm visits to emergency room among females aged 12-17.”

Of the professionals responding to the surveys, 74 per cent said the physical health of the youth they support has worsened or significantly so.

Disruptions of in-person learning in schools have had an overall negative impact on learning, says the report, though its scope isn’t clear due to changes in testing requirements, said the report.


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“Children are struggling — we know that if children don’t learn to read by the time they’re in Grade 3, that can impact their success in future grades,” she said.

“That’s why we invested $53 million to support learning loss for those children in grades one to three.”

The review delivered 10 recommendations, a number of them pushing for greater access to existing programs but also calling for new interventions and supports for the mental well-being of students.

They also call for better tracking of pandemic impacts and more provision of recreational activities for youth.

No firm timeline was given for addressing the recommendations but Schultz said a more detailed plan will be available sometime in the spring.


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The pandemic has laid bare the failures of the United Conservative government in dealing with mental health issues among youth, said Edmonton pediatrician Dr. Tehseen Ladha.

“One of the glaring issues is that there are very limited mental health supports for children in Alberta. There are long waits and many services are out of pocket which leads to inequity over which children get psychological treatment and which don’t,” Ladha said in an email.

“This has gotten much worse in the past two years with cuts to early intervention programs and other early childhood supports that prevent and minimize issues later in life.”

Child health experts have for months been calling for action contained in the recommendations, particularly the need for mental health supports in schools, said Rakhi Pancholi, the NDP’s children’s services critic.


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“There’s a lack of urgency here… we’re still in it — children and youth are still living the pandemic,” she said.

“There are significant new interventions and supports that are needed to make sure kids are supported.”

She said Schultz had committed to dealing with the rising number of children dying in government care in recent months “but I’m not sure I see reflected in this,” said Pancholi, who noted the review doesn’t include the fourth wave of COVID-19.

Last month, provincial figures showed Alberta heading to its worst year in the number of children or young adults dying in government care, with 34 deaths between April and November.

Among them, deaths among Indigenous youths were three times the rate of others.

Meanwhile, the report says uncertainties remain about the longer-term health impacts of COVID-19 among children.

But research out of places like the U.K. and South Africa are raising concerns about long COVID posing a significant threat to children, with the advent of the Omicron variant possibly magnifying that.

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn



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