World Children’s Day is Nov. 20, when we celebrate the importance of children’s rights and of safeguarding adequate physical, mental, spiritual and social development for every child around the world.
These rights, laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, should be universally accepted and supported, but this is often not the case for many children around the globe, even in wealthy nations such as Canada. In fact, Canada continues to fall behind regarding the mental health and well-being of children, ranking 30th out of 38 wealthy nations in UNICEF’s 2020 report card on the state of children and youth worldwide.
The poor standing of mental health and well-being of children and youth in Canada highlights the need to invest and prioritize mental health supports and services for children and their families, a call that pre-dates the pandemic. The best time to act was then; the second-best time is now.
Children’s mental health challenges in Canada
Children’s mental health challenges have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence shows that substance use, eating disorders, and anxiety and mood difficulties have increased. Pediatric hospitals in Canada saw an increase in the number of cases presenting to emergency departments for mental health concerns.
Canadian studies show that nearly 25 per cent of parents report that their children’s mental health has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. With an increase in mental health needs, it follows that the need for services and supports has also increased.
A crisis in child mental health care access
Children’s Mental Health Ontario and the #KidsCantWait campaign demonstrated that prior to the pandemic, there were more than 28,000 children on waitlists for mental health services, sometimes waiting up to 2.5 years. Last summer, a survey revealed that more than 50 per cent of parents say their children are still experiencing negative impacts of the pandemic.
In Spring 2022, we found similar results in Québec based on a sample of 2,500 parents surveyed by our research group at Université Laval. Indeed, more than 50 per cent of the parents of children and adolescents between ages six and 17 years perceived that their child had needed help with emotional or behavioural problems in the past six months. These results are striking when compared to a 2014 study in Ontario, when 18.9 per cent of parents perceived mental health needs for their child.
Not surprisingly, children’s mental health service providers across the country have reported extensive increases in mental health service demand, including a doubling of calls for services and wait times. In addition to the consequences for children and adolescents, increases in perceived unmet needs during the pandemic was shown to lead to increases in parental depression and anxiety.
This pandemic has been described as a generational catastrophe, particularly for children and youth from equity-deserving groups, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children, children from racialized communities, gender and sexually diverse youth, and young people with disabilities. Every child, regardless of background, social status, or location, should have access to high quality mental health assessment and support.
Call to action
1. Preventing mental health challenges: Earlier is better
The best way to address increases in mental health needs is to implement services and policies that prevent their development. Targeting the early years of life makes sense because most mental health difficulties in early adulthood have their origin in childhood. As such, improved access to early childhood services, awareness of early childhood mental health, support and education for caregivers and community providers, as well as community-based early mental health promotion, are critical.
2. Supporting children and adolescents by supporting adults
The most consistent assets of resilient children and adolescents are caring families, healthy schools and good peer relationships. Prevention efforts must therefore not only address children, but also the environments in which they grow. The adults in children’s lives must be healthy and supported for children and adolescents to flourish. Resiliency is not ingrained; it is fostered by strengthening individuals, families and environments. If it takes a village to raise a child, we need to build and maintain a village that promotes resiliency.
3. Increasing funding for child and family mental health services
The Canadian Mental Health Association and other allied organizations have put forward a call for increased funding for child and youth mental health services to address service gaps. In addition to the benefits for individuals, results show that the return on investment for every dollar spent on preventing and treating mental health difficulties in youth is $23.60. These investments not only lead to increases in well-being but are also good economic policy.
4. Improving service access
Access to mental health services needs to improve across the country. For most children, mental health services are obtained through schools. With increased funding and support, mental health promotion and intervention in schools can provide increased access for children and adolescents. Alternatively, ongoing access to virtual approaches to mental health services can provide accessible and efficient options to mental health supports with a high potential for broadened reach across the country.
National Child Day in Canada
In addition to World Children’s Day, in Canada National Child Day is also celebrated on Nov. 20 to recognize our country’s commitment to uphold children’s rights. This day is also a good opportunity to take a moment to look back on the commitments, initiatives and policies that have actually been implemented, as well as look forward to those that should be put in place. Now is not the time to wait. Our children’s future starts today.
André Plamondon receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Nicole Racine receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She sits on the Board of Trustees of Strong Minds, Strong Kids, Psychology Foundation of Canada.
Tracy Vaillancourt receives funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.