Toronto, ON, September 3, 2020
Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) warns that focusing and funding only school-based mental health services to support children as they transition back to school instead of increasing the existing community-based child and youth mental health system will only leave children and youth who have serious mental health issues behind. School-based mental health services will not be enough to support even those kids with moderate mental health needs, mental health experts warn.
Based on a new report from CMHO and The Ontario Centre of Excellence in Child and Youth Mental Health – Return to School During COVID-19: Considerations for Ontario’s Child and Youth Community Mental Health Service Providers – CMHO recommends a family-based approach with increased community-based mental health services to support children and youth transition back to school, address the existing wait lists at community mental health agencies and meet the increase in demand from Ontario families for mental health and addiction services due to the impact of COVID-19.
“Ontario families need a better back to school plan to support their mental health and they need it now,” said Kim Moran, CEO of Children’s Mental Health Ontario. “More mental health services and funding are needed for kids and their families if we want to provide a truly supportive and safe return to school for children and their parents and caregivers. A driving reason for returning to in-person learning is to support the mental health of children, but we are only doing it in half measures. We need a family-focused and community mental health approach to a return to school.”
CMHO and Ontario child and youth mental health clinicians representing nearly 100 Ontario mental health agencies have outlined what to expect as children return to school this fall and recommendations on how to address an anticipated increase in demand for mental health supports as children and their families make the transition during a pandemic. Using the evidence and sources in the report and mental health clinician advice, CMHO and their youth and family partners have created a Back-to-School Mental Health Kit with resources tailored to the needs and interests of youth and parents/caregivers preparing for the transition back to school.
Return to School During COVID-19: Considerations for Ontario’s Child and Youth Community Mental Health Service Providers Report
The report, which is a review of literature on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 and findings from a recent survey of young people and their parents, discusses the benefits of identifying children who may need mental health support and promoting mental health and early intervention; but this will not be enough to help young people who are expected to need more mental health treatment this fall. CMHO warns that school-based mental health interventions will not be enough and can help as part of the overall continuum of care already being lead and delivered by mental health providers, but should not be the primary source of support for families.
School transitions are challenging for many kids each year, but this year it will be particularly challenging for most. The evidence supports a family-focused approach, where possible and appropriate, to help young people feel secure and supported through the return to studies during the uncertain times of COVID-19. Understanding that caregiver supports at home can compound school supports to ease student transitions (Reuger et al., 2014), educators need to work with community mental health providers more closely to ensure young people are optimally supported during this challenging time.
Even in the absence of a global pandemic, children experience increases in anxiety and other mental health issues in September during the transition to school. Nearly one-third (32.5%) of parents surveyed expressed that they had already sought – or were planning to seek – mental health support because of the impact of COVID-19 on their daily life. The report also states young people lacking a strong support network and those with special education needs/learning challenges tend to struggle with school-related transitions under normal circumstances. We anticipate that COVID-19 will amplify existing stressors and risk factors. Consequently, these young people and their families may require additional supports and services this fall.
Additionally, there is a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous, racialized, Black and lower-income populations which already face increased risks to mental health issues, but no plan for targeted and intentional interventions as these populations return to school. Children’s Mental Health Ontario agencies are already noting more complexity in the mental health issues of children and youth that are turning to their centres during the pandemic including – anxiety, behavioral disorders, and eating disorders.
“A return to an in-person school experience may help reduce the poor mental health effects for some young people as they reunite with friends, teachers and the broader school community, but many children will remain isolated at home for varying reasons that can’t be changed during this pandemic,” said Moran. “These children’s families will need more than what schools can provide.”
Even the young people returning physically to school this September will face the challenges of a ‘new-normal.’ Uncertainty remains regarding the efficacy of safeguards in place, the potential of a second wave and how teachers, students and families will adapt to this new way of learning.
As community mental health service providers plan to help young people and families as they return to school this fall, they recommend the province consider:
- The key sources of distress identified in the COVID-19 research literature and the potential for compounded impact when exposed to multiple stressors.
- That younger children – and young people with underdeveloped emotion regulation and coping skills – are at risk of heightened levels of distress, anxiety, distraction, and may consequently face challenges in learning and require additional supports as classes resume.
- That young people are impacted by caregivers’ responses during pandemics and caregiver stress related to the transitions this Fall may contribute to young people’s stress (Cortina et al., 2020). Caregivers and family members grappling with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic and the return to school may require supports to aid their own coping and a family-focused approach may be beneficial for the wellbeing of the child.
To accomplish a family-focused and community-based back to school mental health plan, an immediate increase of funding to support child and youth community mental health centre staffing, improve system coordination and navigation and extended 24/7 access and services to help children and their families as they transition. Mental health and addictions organizations have been calling on the province for a $100 million emergency response to COVID-19 including a transition to school and to work only to be ignored. Prior to COVID, CMHO had estimated an investment of $150 million was needed to help the 28,000 kids waiting, some as long as two and a half years. As billions of federal investments come to Ontario to help in the COVID-19 recovery, Ontarians’ mental health must be made a priority.
For more information, please contact:
Kathleen Powderley, 416-803-5597, firstname.lastname@example.org