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Children’s mental-health care neglected in fight against COVID-19, parents say

TORONTO — Parents of children suffering from anxiety, depression and substance use say the pandemic has made their symptoms worse — and COVID-19 restrictions have curtailed or even eliminated desperately needed help.

Even before provinces enacted lockdown measures, studies suggested 12.6 per cent of children and youth between the ages of four and 17 were likely experiencing clinically significant mental disorders at any given time, and faced long waits for treatment.

Now, parents who have seen the support for their children curtailed or cut because of COVID-19 restrictions are speaking out.

Sarah Hudson’s daughter, whom she asked us not to identify, has autism and selective mutism. Since the lockdowns began, her daughter has also developed depression and anxiety over being stuck at home for long periods of time.

  • Have you struggled to find mental-health care for your child during the pandemic? Tell us your story

Any support Hudson’s daughter received at school disappeared amid efforts to stop the outbreaks. That has left her mother, who works at two jobs in the health-care field, struggling.

“I’m left to basically manage my child. With all of her mental health and manage everything else,” Hudson, who lives north of Toronto, told CTV News.

“It’s been it’s been very, very difficult and the stress is very overwhelming at times,” she added.

Virtual schooling isn’t enough and online appointments for a child who sometimes won’t speak makes it hard to get mental-health care. COVID-19 has eliminated most support services.

Her daughter is experiencing more severe and aggressive behaviours, while her depression is leaving her unable to sleep or engage in school in any way.

Hudson found her daughter some short-term counselling and treatment, but the specialized mental-health treatment isn’t available, and she doesn’t know how much longer they can hang on.

“It’s made it so much worse because there’s no place to go,” she said. “There’s no place to take my child. There’s no one that I can get services for.”

Before the arrival of COVID-19 there were more than 28,000 children in Ontario on a wait list for mental health treatment.

Kimberly Moran, the CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario, says it’s only gotten worse.

“It was bad before where you could wait, almost two years for treatment. Now I’m hearing from parents where clinicians are even thinking it’s not ethically right to put them on the list for treatment it’s so long,” she said.

Jessica Diamond’s 10-year-old son, whom we’ve also agreed not to identify, suffers from severe anxiety, depression, and has repeatedly talked of suicide.

“We’ve had moments where he refused to go to school and was at home, rolling around the floor, talking about how he wanted to die,” Diamond said.

“We’ve had moments where he has gotten up in the middle of the night and tried to harm his brother and woke him up out of the dead sleep, trying to choke him. We’ve had moments where I’ve sat awake all night on the floor, making sure that he was okay and didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and hurt himself when I wasn’t looking. We’ve had to lock up everything in the house that could be used for harm.”

After a long wait for care, Diamond’s son started a residential treatment program in Toronto in March. But just weeks in, treatment stopped because of COVID-19. He returned home early May.

“The focus of treatment shifted drastically, because it became an exercise in: ‘How do we get this kid home safely?’ And my question to the mental-health agency, and anyone else who would listen at the time was: ‘I’ll bring him home. I want him safe. I want him with me in a pandemic, but what do I do if he deteriorates? What do I do if he wakes up tomorrow and he wants to die and I can’t keep him safe? Where do I go?’ she said.

“The hospital is nobody’s favorite place to be right now. There are no crisis services in this city. COVID protocols, made it very difficult to access what little there is.”

Diamond says she was able to get her son some mental-health support at school. But she worries every day.

“He could wake up tomorrow and go back to being actively suicidal or at risk of harming himself or at risk of harming me or his brother, and I have nowhere to take him, I have no assurance of service provision, really,” she said.

“He’s lost six months of active treatment, and he’s 10 years old, every day that he doesn’t get what he means affects his long-term outcome in a way that we can’t possibly understand and every support service he doesn’t get, every minute of therapy counts for these kids and the supports for families count for these kids. I can’t go back to work until I’m sure that my kid is safe and stable and receiving the services that he needs in a fairly reliable way and I don’t have that right now because of the pandemic.”

Advocacy groups say children’s mental health has been neglected in the fight to manage the novel coronavirus. Services have been closed. Others have moved online — but it’s difficult to help children and teens who are suicidal with virtual visits.

And with rising numbers of new infections reported daily, not enough clinics are returning to in-person-visits.

Moran says cutting support for children with mental-health issues can have an impact lasting decades.

“(The) government seems to be dealing with things right now, the things that are really today issues, and not thinking about the fact that these are a whole generation of kids that, without treatment, you’re going to see problems occur over the course of their lifetime,” she said.

“We have to see this as just a big a priority as testing and just to make a priority as making sure that our emergency rooms and our hospital beds have sufficient capacity. These are similar priorities to that. We can’t let these kids keep waiting because the consequences of letting them wait are just too huge.”

Parents say if this is the new normal for now, they should be able to get their children mental-health support, and not have to watch them become collateral damage in the fight against COVID-19. They are hoping for additional attention and financial support to help put counselling and therapy programs back into full action.

“I am worried and anxious, every day, I think about how my child is going to do over the long term every day. In those two years, I went through an episode of major depression,” she said.

“The reality is, it shouldn’t have been that way.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some resources that are available.

Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)

Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1 800 463-2338)

Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

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