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Kids’ mental health, food insecurity and abuse during COVID are flagged in a new report

Children First Canada says young people will bear the brunt of the pandemic’s impact for years to come

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Like thousands of young Canadians, Mélissa Sum Wah has been riding a roller-coaster since the pandemic began.

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There was no graduation when she finished high school in 2020 and no in-person celebrations with friends. She started university online and now, 18 months into the pandemic and fully vaccinated, Sum Wah is in isolation because she has tested positive for COVID-19.

Sum Wah, who grew up in Gatineau and attended Lycée Claudel in Ottawa, is starting her second year of university at Sciences Po in Le Havre, France. Her positive COVID test came as a shock because she is vaccinated. She has fairly mild symptoms, but the isolation is still tough, she said, especially at this point in the pandemic.

“It is not easy.”

It is one more example of the uncertainty and isolation that has characterized the pandemic. For many children and youth, the effects are profound.

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“The uncertainty is a big factor, the mental toll it takes,” Sum Wah said.

The organization Children First Canada is among those that have been sounding the alarm about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children and youth, especially when it comes to mental health.

“Although the COVID-19 pandemic will surely be remembered as one of the defining events in modern Canadian history — cutting across all generations — no generation will have experienced a greater impact than children,” Children First Canada said in a recently released report.

Since the pandemic began, children have experienced major disruption in all aspects of their lives, says the report, from schooling, sports and other educational recreational activities to socializing with friends and families.

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“It will be some time before we fully appreciate the impact of this disruption on their formative years.”

Raising Canadian 2021 is the fourth report from the organization, tracking the top 10 threats to childhood. The top concern it raises is mental health, which has long been a concern, but made worse by the pandemic.

In Ontario, CHEO and the four other pediatric hospitals saw admissions for eating disorders increase by as much as 223 per cent over capacity in June 2021, according to the report. Community pediatricians have said that is likely the tip of the iceberg.

“Clinicians have claimed that this increase is unlike anything they have seen before,” Children First Canada wrote.

Several children’s hospitals have also reported spikes in admissions for suicide attempts over the past year and half.

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The report also raises alarms over child abuse. CHEO is among hospitals that have reported increases in child abuse cases, saying clinicians there have treated twice as many infants as in previous years for maltreatment related concerns. Long absences from school have also raised concerns about undetected abuse.

There has also been a 39 per cent increase in food insecurity across Canada. Households with children are more likely to be affected, according to the report.

Many children have had limited physical activity and play throughout the pandemic, potentially affecting their development as well as their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Over the past decade, Canada has fallen from 10th to 30th place when it comes to the well-being of children in a UNICEF ranking of 38 affluent nations, based on a variety of measures.

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Children First Canada founder and CEO Sara Austin said children must continue to be the focus as Canada rebuilds from the pandemic.

“We must put children at the heart of pandemic recovery plans and invest in the short-, medium- and long-term solutions needed for children to survive and thrive.”

Nineteen-year-old Sum Wah, who works with Children First Canada, said she is especially concerned about the emotional well-being of people her age and younger. “I think children and youth need to be in a social environment to grow. Friendships are really important for growth and development, and when you are not able to experience these friendships, it can get very lonely,” she said.

“I think loneliness is a big part of the deterioration of mental health for children and youth.”

Disruptions in school have been very difficult for many children, she said.

“School can be a lifeline for a lot of children.” Often meals are part of school and teachers are another trusted adult to help ensure that children are OK.

Sum Wah said many of the concerns such as mental health and poverty raised in this year’s report have been raised in the past, but the pandemic has made them more visible.

She said political leaders must have children in mind during the recovery.

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