It is great that WHO and many countries are finally doing surveys and presenting data on mental health during the covid-19 pandemic. Canada is one of those countries and has a history of accompanying its population’s mental health through regular surveys for the past 40 years. In general, they show that moderate to severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders have increased significantly in 2021 and 2020 compared to precedent years. The issues are not only related to the fear of getting sick but also to economic vulnerability and social isolation.
I know that the pandemic has imposed a burden on all of us, and the illness rates are significantly worse among the elderly. But, regarding mental health, youth, including adolescents, has been the most affected age group. And this has also affected parents’ wellbeing. Recent data shows a probable correlation between parents’ and teenagers’ mental health in the pandemic.
For the first time, Canadian surveys are showing that having children did not protect adults from suicide ideation. In fact, in 2021, 9% of parents of under 18 kids reported thinking about suicide recently, while 9% of kids under 18 reported the same, against the 6% of the general population, according to the survey conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association and the University of British Columbia. The exception is indigenous and LGBTQI youth, among whom the rate of suicide thinking came to 15 to 17%. There is no data about parents of LGBTQI teenagers but we can imagine how the burden of dealing with gender and sexual discrimination can add to the pandemic-related issues. In the same survey, more than 20% of parents reported having more conflicts with their children and 11 to 17% reported having increased verbal violence against them.
CMHA has been warning that the decline in children and adolescents’ mental health is an ongoing crisis in Canada since before the pandemic, but it clearly worsened in 2020. For the first time, more than 50% of teenagers reported feeling more anxious. Also, 45% reported a decline in their mental health when in the last survey 36% did. Even though, families are having more quality time together, according to 66% of respondents including parents and children. It seems that parents are more aware of their kids’ mental health decline and are trying to communicate with them and participate in their lives.
But according to The Mental Health Commission Survey, in 2021, most individuals at age 15 to 30 don’t feel comfortable accessing support or help services for mental issues. They feel confident about where to find resources for their wellbeing and mental health; they usually go to the Internet to find those resources, but cannot have proper access to professional help. Only 2% of youth with mental health diagnoses have had access to in-person services and 14% to online services in 2021, according to the mentioned survey. So it seems that while mental health awareness has become more popular on the Internet, it has not been accompanied by better access to adequate services.
While parents can be more informed online on how to help their children, there are issues with which they need help themselves. For instance, usually guidelines suggest parents to control children’s screen time more often. However, with online school and lockdowns, how can parents prevent their kids to spend most part of the day among screens? Also, knowing that youth are seeking mental health resources online how to prevent them to access their devices any time they need? So families are having a hard time establishing boundaries and at the same time validate their children’s need for social connection.
It seems that although families and adolescents are doing important efforts to cope with the pandemic, there is a big gap regarding access to professional services. According to the WHO survey, more than 70% of the countries interrupted mental health services for children and adolescents during the pandemic and 75% interrupted those services in schools and workplaces. To me, it seems that the lack of support from organizations and governments combined with more frequent and intense contact with their children’s suffering has put parents under higher vulnerability. Most of them are trying to help their kids while coping with their own concerns about economic instability and health.
In Brazil, 45% of adults from 18 to 92 years of age presented the criterion for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2020, according to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, and 85% have experienced moderate to high levels of anxiety. We don’t have data about suicide ideation for this country or about specific ages. But we can say that feeling high levels of anxiety and having depressive symptoms during a pandemic as this one is normal – it is coherent with the reality we’re sharing. Accepting this reality while not losing hope is a hard task to perform. For kids who are in the process of learning how to validate and express their emotions, it can be even harder.
When parents watch their kids suffering while also trying to cope with their own mental health issues, sometimes they find a hard time validating and normalizing their feelings and jump to work on problem-solving. Their intentions are good. But the excessive or precipitated focus on problem-solving when someone is in an acute crisis and adequate services are not available can send the opposite message parents are trying to communicate to their children, because it can be felt as invalidating. This is a classical communication problem. And maybe that’s one of the explanations for the increase in verbal violence at homes during the pandemic.
What I propose to families at this point is to avoid toxic positivity. This means to take some time to accept and validate your own struggles giving this challenging context. And it also means to offer solutions to your children in a compassionate way, being aware of their limits and needs. Acceptance of our limits and vulnerabilities does not mean to stop advocating for better mental health and well-being, on the contrary. Do not stop advocating for better and sustainable mental health services and community-based solutions for families and youth. When you communicate with peers and take into account your community’s struggles, you feel less lonely and open ways to creativity and solidarity.