Let’s talk about mental health and our kids

January 28, 2021
Eugene Melnyk

More than ever, we need to collectively focus on mental health issues and how they’re affecting us as individuals and as a society.

COVID-19 has underscored the critical necessity of dealing with, and understanding, the growing mental health issues in our communities.

In recent years, initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day (#BellLet’sTalk) have broken through the stigma long associated with mental health and have opened up a necessary national conversation to raise awareness and increase research funding in a meaningful way.

More recently, the global pandemic has added a new layer of stressors and environmental changes that are significantly exacerbating feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation. Such conditions existed before COVID-19 upended our world – and will continue long after we wrestle the virus.

Research into the effects of COVID-19 on mental health almost universally points to its potential as another global health crisis impacting people of all age groups, genders, races, and socio-economic status.

Business closures, lay-offs, lockdowns, and disruptions of social and educational norms, including the closures of schools, are impacting households in acute ways. In the midst of all of this upheaval, I am especially concerned about the immediate and long-term impact on children.

As Chair and a board member of the new Senators Foundation, I’ve urged our new management group to commit to making children’s mental health a top priority. Already, the Sens Foundation has been raising money to support the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and there are plans to expand our support further to other organizations.

A recent article published in Canadian Medical Association Journal has highlighted that more than 1.5 billion children have been impacted by lockdowns and school closures since the pandemic began (the United Nations puts that number higher 1.6 billion or 94% of the global student population).

Moreover, the research found that about 30% of these children or their parents are suffering from acute stress disorder and adjustment problems from the dramatic change in lifestyle and daily routine brought about by the pandemic. And it’s becoming clear that remote learning affects different grades, creating what some fear is a “learning gap.”

I’ve already written on this blog about the impact of school closures during the pandemic. It has created what I believe to be a major educational crisis in modern history. While the impact on a child’s learning and education can take years to recover from the upheaval of the pandemic, the long-term effects on their mental health may run much deeper.  

The experts seem to agree. A report by Ontario’s largest pediatric hospitals say “children need to be back learning in classrooms as soon as possible,” with all the necessary health and safety protocols in place. Led by Toronto’s renowned Hospital for Sick Children, the document urged the government to restrict delays to in-person learning to be “as time-limited as possible” given the harmful social, developmental, and academic impacts on children. The short-comings of the past to get kids back into the classroom must be addressed urgently, the group said.

These concerns are not limited to the classroom. Children learn almost as much in the school yard as they do sitting at their desks. The damage that social isolation is causing in children during critical phases of development could lead to long-term behavioral issues like aggression, that have the potential to negatively shape future generations.

In Ontario, the government is taking small steps to address these issues as just over 100,000 students have returned to in-person classes this week. Alongside the return, the government announced an immediate $10-million additional investment to support student mental health and expand access to mental health services.

Any investment in this area should be applauded, but won’t likely be enough.

The changes that are needed to support our kids when they do head back into schools need to extend beyond just investing more money in support services. A key part of our recovery should include new strategies that include creating invigorating external environments for our current schools – and building future schools in areas that provide greater opportunities for expansive playgrounds and natural settings.

For example, at the Providence School in Barbados, our campus is situated just by Gun Hill – a sprawling ecological landscape with ample room for environmental discovery and outdoor play for our students. Access to such a rich and stimulating landscape has such a transformational impact on the development of critical social skills that all children must develop, which in turn helps them to cope with challenging times and hopefully mitigate the potential negative impacts of random situations, such as a global pandemic.

Clearly, the exodus of families from large urban centres, such as Toronto and Montreal, to smaller towns and cities is evidence that an escape to nature is the balm we need to cope with these challenging times.

Of course, not every learning institution has access to expansive natural surroundings – so this is where we need to challenge ourselves as a society to be creative and find ways to make green space amid the bricks and mortar.

Each of us as citizens — not just members of government, business, not-for-profits and other organizations — all have a role to play in combating the growing mental health crises we are facing together. So let’s start today to do more than just raise awareness for mental health. Remember, every action counts.

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