Kids health

"Social malnutrition" is one of the pandemic's major effects on young kids, say Ontario docs

COVID may not be affecting our children's physical health catastrophically, but it is ravaging their mental health in many ways—and the impact could linger, say doctors.

For many parents, one of the few silver linings about COVID-19 was the fact that, at least initially, it didn’t seem to effect children severely. But, after a year-plus of lockdowns, remote schooling, cancelled camps and extracurricular activities, and a generally inability for kids to be kids, we’re now learning about how all these measures are having a negative impact on children’s mental health.

In a panel discussion yesterday, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) addressed the pandemic’s long-term impacts on children’s physical and mental health. Here’s what we learned.

Learning and socializing impacts

Shutdowns and virtual learning have “taken away routine and structure from [kids’] day, and led to social isolation,” says paediatrician Saba Merchant, owner and director of Maple Kidz Clinic in Vaughan, Ont. “We have coined the term ‘social malnutrition.”

This isolation has lead to a decline in mental health, social and mental development, cognitive development and even language development to a certain extent, says Merchant.

The risks are even higher for children with pre-existing neurodevelopment issues such as autism, ADHD and learning disabilities, or kids from families facing financial stress, substance abuse or a history of mental health issues.

Kids’ anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts are through the roof

“In the past year I’ve seen a skyrocketing in cases of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, inattention, obesity, eating disorders, obsessions, compulsions—and the list just goes on,” says Merchant.

Daniel Rosenfield, a paediatric emergency medicine specialist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, concurred. “In the past year, we’ve seen a 25 percent increase in suicide attempts into our emergency department and I know other [hospitals] across the country have seen the same,” he says. A report by Sick Kids earlier this year found about 40 percent of kids reporting anxiety.

The impact is likely to be long-term

Based on anecdotal reports from teachers, Merchant says that some kids are behind academically and socially “by at least a year.” Still, she feels the mental health issues will be the ones that take longer to heal. “I think the cognitive and language development will catch up sooner, but the mental health [issues] may last,” says Merchant. She cites records from the 1919 Spanish Flu that showed admissions to asylums were up seven-fold up to six years after the end of that pandemic. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s “an indicator that some of these things can last quite long,” she says.

How parents and caregivers can help 

Parents and caregivers need to be attuned to potential warning signs. “Any shift in the child’s routine and behaviour would be a red flag,” says Merchant. Signs to watch for include changes in sleep patterns, diet, mood, or a lack of interest in hobbies or connecting with friends over a prolonged period.

The panelists agreed that during the pandemic, screen-time limits should be eased, particularly for teens who are relying heavily on social media for their interactions with peers. They also recommend forming small bubbles with family and friends, when and where it’s safe to do so.

Parents of teens need to tread particularly lightly. “There is more resilience in the younger ones than the older ones when it comes to mental health,” says Merchant. Teenagers are naturally reluctant to spend time with their parents. “When you do have that window with them, try to make it a very positive interaction. Keep away from contentious issues, show interest in what they are doing, be curious about their life and create that easygoing kind of communication,” she says.

Finally, the panelists urged parents to be aware of their own mental health. “Find a way to take 10 or 20 minutes for yourself. Our kids don’t well when we don’t do well,” says Samantha Hill, a cardiac surgeon and the president of the OMA.