'They are all changed': What more than a year of pandemic isolation means for youth mental health
TORONTO -- The latest round of pandemic closures and restrictions in provinces across Canada is continuing to put children’s mental health at risk, experts say, with many students attending school virtually and having limited access to extracurricular activities.
Since the start of the pandemic, children have seen a variety of schooling models: in-person, an in-person and remote learning hybrid, and learning that is completely done online. Sports and recreational activities for children outside of school have had to take similar approaches, with some organizations having to permanently close down.
With many provinces entering lockdowns and changing restrictions constantly, Alexandra DeLory, co-director and instructor at Sandra Amodeo Dance Studio in Markham, Ont., said that the “flip-flopping between open and closed” and the overall impact that the pandemic has had has made some of her students “unrecognizable from a year ago.”
“Students who were once full of life have become reclusive and full of anxiety. To put it plainly, this pandemic has turned them into different people,” DeLory told CTVNews.ca. “The dance studio is usually a bright and bubbly environment; full of smiles, laughs and happy children. The last year has been very different. Each child has handled the pandemic in very different ways but one thing is consistent, they are all changed.”
According to the Canadian Psychological Association, physical activity isn’t just beneficial from a physiological standpoint, but can be a positive factor when looking at the effects it has psychologically, socially, and neurologically on an individual. The organization says that regular physical activity can prevent depression, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness, and can also reduce stress, boost one’s self-esteem, and increase a child’s cognitive ability and academic performance.
“Children’s sports and recreation programs help children in so many ways, but above all else, I believe these programs provide children with a sense of purpose,” said DeLory. “Children who participate in recreational activities have clear cut goals and coaches who empower them with the tools they need to feel motivated to achieve them. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have taken that sense of purpose, goals and mentors away from children.”
DeLory said children’s sports and recreation programs also provide them and their families with passion and a support system that, when taken away during the COVID-19 pandemic, becomes extremely harmful for the child.
“Recreational activities provide a sense of community, belonging and socialization,” she said. “To our students and many other children, their sport and recreation centre is their second home and family, and several children are struggling deeply right now with the ongoing separation from these people and places.”
A study led by SickKids hospital in Toronto shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, about 70 per cent of youth ages six to 18 experienced one or more of the following: depression, anxiety, irritability, a lower attention span, or obsessions and compulsions. For children between the ages of two and five, approximately 66 per cent reported having at least one of these symptoms.
After the April break, schools in Ontario will be moved online, while the province is in another lockdown amid the third wave of the pandemic. With the limited access that youth have to extracurricular activities and having to transition to an online learning model, students say that this will take a “harsh toll” on their mental health.
“The combination of a condensed course load and absence of social interaction has made me feel less motivated and overwhelmed with the work on my plate,” Teresa Siby, student at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ontario, told CTVNews.ca. “Even prior to school closures, student mental health has been on a dangerous decline and now, due to the pandemic’s social restrictions, students are being stripped of a real learning experience.”
Being able to have in-person interactions is what psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang says is part of a youth’s biological needs. Kang discussed on CTV’s Your Morning how individuals up to the age of 24 are driven by dopamine to do three things: take risks, connect with their peers, and try new things. Kang said that the inability to do these things may lead to chronic stress, which could trigger a reaction called ‘freeze, fight, or flight.’
She explained ‘freeze’ as behaviours such as anxiety, indecisiveness, procrastination, and perfectionism. The fight reaction may lead to emotions of anger and rage, and flight turns to mental escapes such as the use of alcohol, drugs, videogaming, and social media.
With the ongoing pandemic and closures taking place across the country, Kang said these behaviours will only increase more and more in youth.