By Powell River Physicians COVID-19 Steering Group
(photo credit Jennifer Kennedy)
Mental health is a hot topic in the news these days. A year into the pandemic there are few of us who are not feeling the strain of isolation and restrictions on our normal activities with friends and family. Children and teenagers are no exception.
It may not be surprising to hear that in a recent survey conducted by the Powell River Division of Family Practice 49% of parents said their child/children’s mental health has declined over the course of the past year.
Dr. Leta Burechailo is a family physician who focuses on youth and young adult care. Her work centres on identifying and building on young peoples’ strengths to improve their health. She also collaborates with other youth-serving professionals to create care teams. Leta says her workload (and that of her colleagues) has increased by 25-30% in the past year.
“A substantial reason for this increase is that more people have been struggling with mental health decline in the past year. But it’s also because people are reaching out to get support, which of course is good.”
The public focus on mental health due to the pandemic offers an opportunity to bring conversations on this topic into the open, Leta continues.
“One of the best coping mechanisms we have is learning how to talk to each other about mental health in a way that is compassionate, non-judgmental and understanding,” she says. “All of us – adults and children – need to figure out how to communicate to others about how we are feeling, and also how to listen to and support our friends and family members who are struggling.”
Ashley Piazza is a grade 9 student at Brooks Secondary School. She agrees that learning how to talk to others and ask for help when you need it is a key part of overcoming difficulties. Earlier this year Ashley was put in touch with a therapist through school after a teacher noticed she was struggling.
“I had seen a therapist when I was in grade 7, and I knew it helped me before, so I was willing to try it again, and that has been really helpful,” she says.
Finding ways to be normal has also been key for Ashley.
“I started looking forward to going to school a lot more [during the pandemic] because school has really been the only place where things seem the same. School feels like somewhere we could be normal.”
Leta points out that the Public Health guidelines are working, and people should continue to follow them. “It’s largely because of the successful implementation of pandemic protections that we have been able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Powell River,” she says.
“And that success means that the indoor places that kids go — schools, the recreation complex, stores, certain extracurricular activities, etc — have proven to be low risk for COVID locally, which is very reassuring. Also, outdoor places that kids and families go – trails, beaches, parks, etc – have proven to be safe destinations, when gatherings are avoided.
“The risk for mental health decline due to COVID-related isolation and disruption in routine and connections may be significant. I would encourage families, children, and teens to identify and make time for activities that boost their mental health. It’s not always easy or part of our usual routines, but there are many ways to maintain good mental health that adhere to Public Health rules and keep COVID risk low.”
Through the past year, Leta says, she has come to a renewed appreciation of the fact that relationships are powerful medicine.
Everyone needs to act in ways that make them feel comfortable, and that varies from person to person, she adds. If someone needs help assessing their health risks, talking with a family doctor or nurse practitioner can be helpful.
As Ashley noticed with school, Leta says that maintaining daily routines help preserve “body basics” that are key for good mental health, such as sleep and nutrition. “Other things I suggest to my patients are: reframing your mindset to focus on what you do have, rather than what is lost; pushing creative boundaries and finding something new that you’d like to learn; decreasing social media time; and increasing physically distanced social time, even if it has to be online.
“In addition, doing something for your body every day – stretching, walking, shoveling dirt, biking, dancing – whatever interests you – activity is such an important thing to include.”
What are the warning signs to watch for?
It is normal for children and teenagers to experience mood changes, and to worry about many things. However, some warning signs that may indicate a child or teen could be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other concerning mental health issues, and need additional support, include:
- A persistent negative change from usual behaviour, for more than a week or two.
- Stress levels, worries or low mood getting in the way of typical behaviour or daily function (for example falling sleep, eating, hanging out with friends, attending school).
- Low motivation, social withdrawal, irritability, less participation in relationships, spending more time in their bedroom (“shutting out the world”).
- A shift in body basics, for example: changes in sleep schedule, like going to bed late and sleeping in late; appetite and weight changes; increase in pain symptoms (eg. headaches, stomach aches, etc).
- More time spent on screens, which can indicate a teen is feeling an increasing need for an ‘escape’ from distressing emotions.
This article was first published in the February issue of Powell River Living Magazine.