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More youth mental health funding urged to head off pandemic trauma


‘There’s been two years of disruption and trauma and to simply ease back on restrictions is not going to solve it’

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Alberta is woefully unprepared to deal with a coming massive surge of mental illness among youth harmed by pandemic restrictions, say psychiatrists.

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What was already a gathering storm of mental health issues facing the province’s children and adolescents prior to COVID-19 is an emergency that’s set to explode once the pandemic passes, said Dr. Sterling Sparshu, president of the Alberta Medical Association section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“In the 10 years leading up to COVID, there was more than a doubling of emergency presentations for children and adolescent mental health,” said Sparshu, who practises in the Calgary area.

“It will undeniably continue to go up; my fear is the growth will be exponential.”

The toll of nearly two years of pandemic restrictions that have placed constraints on in-person education, sports and social activities is already well-advanced, said Sparshu.

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Many of those measures were necessary to protect lives from the virus that’s killed at least 3,673 Albertans and nearly 35,000 Canadians, but their consequences are real, he said.

“There’s been two years of disruption and trauma and to simply ease back on restrictions is not going to solve it,” said Sparshu.

“Many people are just barely hanging on, they’re still really suffering.”

One of those who’s suffered recently is Calgarian Leland G., 21, who tried to commit suicide multiple times last fall following some life setbacks.

His initial treatment was physically confining and insensitive, he said the man, who didn’t want to give his last name.

“I was released feeling horrible and once again attempted suicide,” said Leland, adding his following care in a short stay unit was far better.

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“Overall, our healthcare system has some obvious flaws that need to be studied, reviewed and changed but I am incredibly grateful for the treatment I received.”

What’s needed to help deliver that is a doubling of the mental health share of Alberta’s health-care budget, a portion that’s probably about six per cent, said Sparshu.

Most other economically advanced countries devote 10 to 20 per cent of their health-care budgets to that field, added Sparshu.

And with only 61 child/adolescent psychiatrists in Alberta, Sparshu said one 10-year projection shows the need to add 51 more annually to reach a healthy level.

“There’s a massive shortage,” he said, adding a structural change in how services are delivered is crucial.

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“You could build whole hospitals for kids but our goal is to go upstream before they get in crisis.”

In December, a provincial government report — drawn from telephone, online and roundtable surveys conducted with 10,000 Albertans from May to July — 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.”

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

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, the report said.

Sparshu said he agrees with the report and notes consistent findings that suicide rates haven’t increased during the pandemic could be wishful thinking as a tragic, lagging indicator.

Among youth, the stresses of school were deferred by testing standards dropped to accommodate the pandemic, he said.

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“Only now, when all those stressors come back in, it’ll all be felt,” said Sparshu.

Complaints about access to mental health care has long been a mainstay in Alberta. Sparshu said difficulty navigating it often means patients end up in the ER, which is ill-equipped to handle patients and is extremely expensive.

The provincial government recognizes the need for mental-health support, particularly in schools, but it’s still not a seamless, fully-integrated system, said Dr. Kathryn Fitch, president of the Alberta Psychiatric Association.

“Collaboration and planning across many stakeholders is needed to promote early identification and timely initial treatment of students who require mental-health supports. Adequate funding is also needed to support ongoing recovery and relapse prevention,” said Fitch.

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A spokesman for Alberta Health said there’s no doubt the pandemic has caused trauma among youth and that addressing it is a work in progress.

“We know there is more work to do, and we are currently participating in the creation of a cross-ministry action plan to build a comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care for all Albertans, including youth,” said Eric Engler, press secretary for Mental Health and Addiction.

“We look forward to making further announcements to improve youth mental wellness as part of Budget 2022/23.”

The government has made investments in virtual, in-person and phone supports for those who need mental-health support. Those looking for more information can go to alberta.ca/mentalhealth or call  211 Alberta.

A silver lining from COVID-19 is that it’s shone the spotlight on mental-health issues like it rarely has before — and there is hope, said Sparshu.

“Kids get better when we give them the treatment they need,” he said.

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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