Getting back to being fully social for many kids following the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a lot more time than anticipated, and BC Children’s Hospital saw a significant increase in mental health visits to its emergency department at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.
In the transition from summer to fall last year, the number of mental health visits was up 27 per cent compared to August, notes a media release from Provincial Health Services Tuesday (Sept. 19.)
Dr. Dzung Vo said living through a pandemic was very hard and stressful for some young people, and that transition of going back to school can be a challenge.
“They lost a lot of development opportunities because having those connections and building those relationships and learning how to relate to other people, both peers and adults, is a really important developmental milestone for kids in their overall development,” explained Vo, who is the director of BC Children’s Centre for Mindfulness.
Returning to school in September can be a “mixed picture” for students as some deal with higher levels of anxiety as change can be a stressful situation. Vo added academic expectations can be quite high for some students, while those with neurodevelopmental or learning disabilities can find the return to be challenging, especially when transitioning into high school.
“For other young people, there can be challenging times with peer relationships, with social relationships, with bullying and discrimination.”
The Provincial Health Services Authority notes that BC Children’s Hospital emergency department’s top mental health diagnoses since the beginning of the year include suicide attempt, anxiety, depression and eating disorders. On average, the emergency department sees about 115 mental health visits per month.
With that, BC Children’s Hospital is offering families a back-to-school wellness ‘toolkit.’
Vo said one of the most important things parents, caregivers or teachers can do is to let children and students know they care no matter was by normalizing strong emotions.
“It’s part of being human. Having anxiety and experiencing stress, experiencing sadness, those are normal human emotions and it’s OK. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Vo added adults can also model and teach healthy coping strategies, with many schools doing this through social emotional learning. It’s a movement from the last 10 to 20 years where students are taught social and emotional competencies while also “learning how to talk about mental health and cope with the stress and build healthy relationships. Those are just as important as academic competencies.”