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Depression and anxiety symptoms have doubled among youth during pandemic: study

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TORONTO -

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a large number of youth across the globe staying at home and it's having a drastic effect on their mental health, researchers have found.

The percentage of children and adolescents experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms has doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a University of Calgary (UCalgary) study published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday.

"Estimates show that one in four youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms while one in five have clinically elevated anxiety symptoms," Dr. Nicole Racine, postdoctoral associate and clinical psychologist at UCalgary and lead author of the study, said in a press release. "Further alarming, these symptoms are compounding over time."

The study was a meta-analysis of 29 different studies from around the world (16 from East Asia, six from North America, four from Europe, two from Central and South America and one from the Middle East) and included data on 80,879 youth. It also showed that older adolescents and girls were experiencing the highest levels of depression and anxiety.

"We know from other studies that rates of depression and anxiety in youth tend to ebb and flow with restrictions," said Dr. Sheri Madigan, a UCalgary clinical psychologist and Canada research chair in determinants of child development, who co-authored the study. "When more restrictions are imposed, rates go up. Being socially isolated, kept away from their friends, their school routines and social interactions has proven to be really hard on kids."

The longer the pandemic persists, the more childhood milestones are missed, according to Madigan.

"These kids didn’t imagine that when they graduated, they’d never get to say goodbye to their school, their teachers or their friends, and now they’re moving on to something new, with zero closure," Racine said. "There’s a grieving process associated with that."

Laura Young, a Sudbury, Ont. resident whose 12-year-old daughter Anna was dealing with anxiety and other mental health struggles before the pandemic, said a school routine was very important to her child.

When the pandemic hit and schools closed to in-person learning, “her anxiety was much harder to manage,” Young told CTV News.

The stresses of the pandemic caused Anna to pace around the house and experience sleep disturbances, among other things, her mother said. A lack of consistent mental health care and the switch to virtual therapy sessions didn’t help, either.

“It's been really, really challenging, and normally the way that parents with kids who struggle with their mental health cope is with supports and networks, and we haven't been able to access those,” Young said. “It has been really long and really hard…And I'm concerned it's going to take a long time to get back to where we were before the pandemic.”

The latest study found that adolescents were particularly hard hit because they’re at an age where more complex social relationships begin to develop.

"Once you enter adolescence you begin differentiating from your family members and your peers can actually become your most important source of social support," Racine said. "That support was greatly reduced, and in some cases absent altogether, during the pandemic."

Kim Moran, the CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, said her group is seeing a doubling of some volumes when it comes to mental health care needs at walk-in clinics. She said experts are also “very concerned” about kids with eating disorders whose condition may have worsened during the pandemic.

“We have to keep schools open, they're the single most important protective factor for kids with mental health issues,” Moran told CTV News. She also encouraged everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated to get the jab, “to keep schools open.”

As vaccination programs are being engaged worldwide and people look toward returning to something resembling pre-pandemic life, the question now is whether or not the mental toll of the past year and a half will linger or not.

"At this point we don’t know the answer to that," Racine said. "I think for most children who have experienced elevated mental health symptoms, some of that will resolve. But there will be a group of children for whom that isn’t the case. For them, this pandemic may have been a catalyst, setting them off on a trajectory that could be challenging. And there’s another group of children who had mental health difficulties pre-pandemic. They might really struggle long term."

Sara Austin, the founder and CEO of Children First Canada, told CTV News she was “sadly” not surprised to see the numbers in the latest study. She said her organization has been “ringing the alarm” about the state of youth mental health even before the pandemic and was among those declaring a “Code Pink” emergency affecting kids’ mental health as COVID-19 restrictions wore on.

“This report really rings true because we've been seeing this we've been hearing it from the front lines from children's hospitals,” she said.

Given the results of this study, the authors recommend putting more mental health supports in place in order to help youth now and in the years to come.

"Long before the pandemic we had a youth mental health system that was stretched and lacking resources," Racine said. "A potential doubling of mental health difficulties will overwhelm that system without a significant increase in resources."

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