A comprehensive new report following the quality of life in Toronto is sounding the alarm about a looming crisis for the city’s youth in the coming years.
The Toronto Fund’s 2021 Vital Signs report, which gathers information gleaned from hundreds of surveys, interviews and articles, warns of “alarming increases in mental challenges” for children and youth in the city over the past two years.
This includes more young people reporting loneliness, an increase in visits to the Hospital for Sick Children’s emergency room over suicidal thoughts and an increasing number of eating disorders.
These trends, combined with a ballooning waiting list for services, are leading to widespread concern that the impact of the last two years on mental health will continue long after the pandemic is over.
“We are concerned that long-term anxiety and depression will become lifelong illnesses and burdens for our children to bear,” said Toronto Foundation President and CEO Sharon Avery.
Avery called mental health challenges a “shadow pandemic” that risks “exceeding the mental health system that was already congested, especially for young people.”
In early 2020, Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) released figures showing that around 28,000 children and adolescents under the age of 18 were waiting for mental health and addiction services – more than double the 2017 waiting list.
This path is expected to continue, with the Vital Signs report citing a release from the Ontario Medical Association describing an expected boom following the pandemic in demand for mental health services, partly informed by historical precedent.
“Elevated mental challenges continued for at least six years after the 1919 pandemic,” the report reads.
Studies of people who were to quarantine or isolate themselves during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s cited in the same OMA publication also showed that people experienced post-traumatic stress and depression afterwards.
So why the delay?
Part of the reason, says Asante Haughton, is due to how trauma can work.
“Our bodies are equipped to go through traumatic experiences … and then we feel the impact of that trauma when that experience ends,” said Haughton, a mental health lawyer and manager at Stella’s Place who provides mental health services to young.
Haughton says the number of young people seeking help shot up dramatically after March 2020, and that he would not be surprised to see them rise again “as we leave the pandemic.”
“One of the bigger challenges right now is simply whether we have enough infrastructure to support the flood of service users we are likely to receive,” he said.
Octavia Sampson also believes the need for psychiatric services will increase.
Sampson was a mental health counselor and co-founded the Afya Collective, a group that aims to support and provide physical, mental, and social health services to black women and girls.
“I think right now that people are in survival mode, so they’re just working on ‘what will get me to the next point,'” she told CBC Toronto.
“And eventually, when they are no longer worried about the immediate dangers, there will be some of them who realize, ‘Wow, my whole world has changed.'”
More programming, practical support needed
Both Sampson and Haughton say more programming and services are needed — especially, say, Sampson services that are youth-driven.
Haughton agrees that mental health services are critical, especially programs in other languages, for black and native youth and in underserved areas of the city.
He also says that work must be done to deal with the daily sources of stress that make life difficult.
“There is definitely an emphasis we should put on practical things. Young people need to have jobs and pay rent,” he said, as well as being able to afford things like food and transportation.
It follows what Sharon Avery found in the larger Vital Signs report, which paints a picture of a city struggling with ever-increasing inequality, which can then take a huge toll on mental health.
“Youth unemployment rates are disproportionately high, young people do not feel hopeful about their future, half of the young people in Toronto are considering moving out of the province because they do not think they can make ends meet,” she explained.
“And when you lay the groundwork for the problems of racialized youth, you have even higher numbers.”
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