It’s been a full year. When we first started social distancing measures, closed schools, and shut businesses, our collective mantra was “flatten the curve.” There were obvious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We received daily reports about the number of cases, how many people were in hospitals and ICUs. We worried about running out of precious supplies to help healthcare workers deal with the surge of patients. There have been so many issues competing for our attention.

But the untold consequences of COVID-19 rarely made the headlines. The pandemic has been particularly challenging for youth, especially in relation to their mental health. Even before the pandemic, there were reports of worsening mental health issues for youth and scarce resources to support them. Then the pandemic came along, exacerbating mental health issues that already existed, and the gap in resources to support them.

“It is impossible not to notice the sharp spike in anxiety and depression in youth…”

I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. The process of learning to become a surgeon does not give one much training in mental health. However, it is impossible not to notice the sharp spike in anxiety and depression in youth that I treat since the pandemic has started. It took me a while to see. There were subtle things:

  • Children complaining of more pain than usual after surgery
  • Youth more anxious about coming into the hospital
  • More conversations shifting to mental health

These don’t usually happen in a surgery clinic, but they have been happening more and more.

This increase in mental health concerns among youth is something that we need to pay close attention to. The disruption to daily routines, the removal of social activities, and transitioning between in-person and online schools have created new and unexpected stresses.

“Adults need to know that it’s okay not to be okay. And it’s important to let the kids in our lives know that too.”

Children need certainty and stability. We all yearn for that. But youth have been particularly hard-hit by these uncertain times. They have had to break continuity of learning, missed important life events, and have lost a sense of security and safety. Studies conducted during the pandemic have shown that youth perceive their mental health deteriorating. Adolescents that already struggled with mental health issues before the pandemic have noted worse psychological health since last year. Youth who have previously sought mental health help have found that their access to care has experienced disruptions.

What does all of this mean? It means we should pay close attention to our kids and support them through these challenging times. This is not easy. Many more adults are also struggling with their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. First, adults need to know that that it’s okay not to be okay. And it’s important to let the kids in our lives know that too. It can be an uncomfortable conversation, but an important one to have during the pandemic. We should be as sensitive as possible to their unique needs and recognize and address their fears and stresses to the best of our ability.

“Youth have to be encouraged that all the sacrifices they are making have a purpose. They are helping to protect their friends, relatives, and teachers.”

It’s also important not to forget that mental health and physical health are closely tied. Even though the world is different, “normal” activities should be encouraged for youth. Staying healthy also includes helping make sure our youth have access to good food and clean water, and that there are still outlets for physical activities. Finally, youth need to be able feel like they are staying socially connected. Video calls can be exhausting, but regular phone calls, social media, even letter writing can help!

Most importantly, kids need to know they are not alone and that they are not abnormal. There are a ton of service and resources that can help, including organizations like United Way and their partners. Check out our children and youth initiatives for more information.

Dr. Tito Daodu is an award-winning researcher, volunteer, and pediatric surgeon who works to break down barriers to patients in need of surgical care. She is also a founding member of the United Way of Calgary and Area Ambassador Program, where she strives to make a meaningful impact outside of hospital walls.