For youth struggling with mental wellness, the need for physical distancing removed many support systems, having a profound effect on mental health. For others, the pandemic has brought about new challenges, such as feeling isolated and prolonged stress or anxiety when lockdowns occur.
In the recent Ensemble Volume 14: The Future of Well Being event, RBC Future Launch partners and experts in the youth mental health space, Jack.org, CAMH and Kids Help Phone joined RBC Chief Human Resources Officer Helena Gottschling to discuss the current mental health landscape for young people.
“There’s no doubt that this global crisis has had a profound impact on how we live and work, and it’s certainly testing the resilience of each and every one of us,” Gottschling said. Gottschling highlighted the increased impact of the pandemic on young people. “Through our work at RBC, we are seeing how youth are disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout — and it certainly exacerbates the already difficult school to work transition,” she said. What’s more, “the need for physical distancing has eliminated many of our support systems overnight, which is why organizations like Jack.org, CAMH and Kids Help Phone have never been more important.”
Gottschling welcomed members of those organizations to a panel discussion to share insights on youth mental health through COVID-19, as well as how peers, adults, and the health system can help support young people to cope through the pandemic and beyond.
Dr. Damian Jankowicz, Vice President, Information Management, Chief Information Officer and Chief Privacy Officer at CAMH, Iman Musani, Jack Talk Speaker at jack.org and Alisa Simon, Senior Vice President, Innovation and Chief Youth Officer at Kids Help Phone discussed these issues and more. Here are key takeaways from their conversation.
Mental health awareness has increased, but the stigma remains
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been more attention paid to mental health. People are more openly talking about the stress faced by all Canadians — from isolation to grief to financial anxieties. And the panel agreed, there is probably less stigma around those issues.
But as Iman Musani said, the stigma hasn’t been erased — rather, it has shifted.
“It’s not that mental health issues are becoming destigmatized, she said. “I would say they’re becoming differently stigmatized. We are all facing a lot of challenges, but I think that some people are still facing a lot more challenges than others within the context of COVID-19.”
Dr. Jankowicz added that any existing mental health issues have been made worse by the pandemic. He is inspired, however, by the youth voices that are leading the changes in the stigma shift associated with mental illness. “This is not the time to stop the conversation,” he said. “Rather, it’s time to push harder.”
Youth are needing — and using — support services more than ever
Young people are needing to connect more in the moment. The team at Kids Help Phone supported young people 4.5 million times last year, according to Alison Simon, which was a 137 per cent increase from the year before.
Learn more about youth mental health over the past year.
Part of the increase in youth outreach is because young Canadians have been experiencing isolation, grief, and feeling as if they are missing out on important life milestones. But Simon shared that there have also been some surprises.
“The issues we’ve seen the largest increase in are body image and eating challenges,” she told the panel. “Young people are more and more at home — they’re struggling with eating or with how they look on camera.” And sadly, there have been more young people talking about self-harm. “We have seen over a 100 per cent increase in contacts about suicide over the last few years,” she said.
How to support youth mental wellness
From a public health perspective, Dr. Jankowicz believes that mental health must be prioritized equally with physical health, and therefore feels the investment between the two needs to be equalized.
He also calls on tech companies to create safer online spaces, especially for youth seeking mental health support. It’s important to meet youth where they are — which is increasingly on social media platforms — and find ways to boost privacy, curb misinformation and address bullying. Even more than that, however, he urges the use of technology as a way to help youth during critical moments of need.
“Right now there are missed opportunities around being able to detect when somebody is suffering as they’re posting online, and having the ability to mobilize services,” he said.
Musani agreed, adding the people in a young person’s support circle — including the adults in their lives — can also do their part by confronting the biases that may be unconsciously passed along to the next generation. “We have a responsibility to confront the biases that are within ourselves, no matter how old we are or how uncomfortable they are to confront. We can talk about depression and anxiety, but what about severe mental health issues? What about mental health issues in homeless people? What about mental health issues that occur with substance abuse? Those are not the things people like to talk about,” she said.
People will be struggling for a long time
The impact of the pandemic on mental health won’t be over once it’s is over, the panelists agreed. People will be struggling with their mental health for a long time.
To support mental wellness on an ongoing and long-term basis, Musani believes that systems must be created to promote positive mental health, especially for people who are particularly vulnerable. “Huge gaps in our system are coming to light,” she explained.
For example, Jack.org’s 2020 Youth Voice Report surveyed more than 1600 young Canadians about “the state of youth mental health and the obstacles young people face.” Some of the existing gaps include a lack of regional services or internet access, long waiting periods, and prohibitive costs. Additionally, there is a need for appropriate mental health services for different cultural backgrounds.
“This is a great chance for us to create systems so that youth are able to experience the level of mental health care they deserve going forward,” Musani said.
Simon further emphasized the need to create systems that help navigate the tools available, so youth can receive the help they need based on their individual circumstances.
“It’s on us to create a system that doesn’t make young people or families run around trying to find the right tools or services. We need to be building integrated systems of digital mental health supports. That’s our challenge — and we need to rise to that challenge, or we’re going to be letting every person across Canada down.”
Ensemble Volume 14 was sponsored by RBC Future Launch, a 10-year $500 million commitment to help Canadian youth thrive, prosper and prepare for the future of work. Last year, RBC Future Launch at Home was launched with thirty virtual programs focused on mental health and well-being, job readiness skills, STEM and online learning.
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