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Why We Need a Proactive Strategy to Face Down the Youth Mental Health and COVID-19 Crises

By Bryan Young, Former Network Representative

April 2, 2020

Six years ago this month, I was admitted to the hospital, at the age of sixteen, after making an attempt to die by suicide. It might seem like an odd anniversary to celebrate, but I find that reflecting on that period of my life is incredibly helpful. The month I spent in the hospital was one of the hardest times of my life. I had to fight to overcome my demons and learn coping strategies to manage my various mental illnesses.

Looking back, I’m able to appreciate the resilience it took me to get through that period, and I feel proud of how far I’ve come. As I reflect on my hospitalization now, I can’t help but wonder how COVID-19 might have changed my story. Many of the things that help those living with mental illness—a sense of routine or structure in their lives, regular therapy or counselling appointments, and social support from friends and loved ones—have been upended by COVID-19. I worry about those struggling with mental illness, especially anyone attempting to navigate Canada’s mental health system for the first time. I know how difficult that system is to navigate at the best of times, and I hope they are able to get the support they desperately need.

As I’ve watched COVID-19 unfold—at times feeling overwhelmed myself—I’ve wondered why more wasn’t done to proactively address youth mental health when we had a better chance at helping. Even before this global pandemic hit, our mental health system was chronically overburdened, leaving far too many young people languishing as they waited to get proper mental health support. The last few weeks have only amplified the holes within our mental health system and created new mental health stressors that are bound to have repercussions for years to come. I think about those in recovery from addiction without access to in-person support groups, young people who are now facing the financial burden of making tuition and rent payments with extremely limited employment opportunities. I worry about those who are dealing with valid feelings of fear, isolation, and panic, who don’t have access to the social or professional support I had when I was living through the darkest period of my life. And so, as we navigate this period of time together, I urge us all to remember that COVID-19 is not the only public health emergency we need to be concerned about. Suicide continues to be the leading health-related cause of death for young people in Canada, and our country has been failing to provide young people with the mental health education and resources they need to manage and heal. There are many people who are living in a reality where both their mental and physical health are under threat. We need to do all we can to support them in this new reality.

I take heart in the many conversations I’ve heard about the role we all have to play in preventing the overburdening of our healthcare system and slowing the spread of COVID-19. It’s clear that people recognize we have an ethical obligation to protect our most vulnerable. Institutions across the country have been scrambling to find and create solutions, not only to the physical health crisis we’re facing, but the mental health crisis, too. Kids Help Phone has seen a 300% spike in demand for their crisis texting service, prompting the federal government to provide $7.5 million in emergency funding to the service. I wholly applaud that move, but we need to see more than just emergency funding to essential mental health services—while that funding will help to get thousands of young people support while they practice physical distancing, it’s not enough. We are going to need to deploy an unprecedented level of resources to aid those who are struggling with their mental health, to make sure that they have the support they need to recover. I wonder how our systems, which were already failing to meet the needs of young people, will adjust to the surge of young people requiring support. We need to react now to support young people’s mental health, as we should have done before the pandemic when, year after year, 25% of all youth deaths in Canada were due to suicide.

When we think about the impact this crisis is having, let’s not forget those in acute struggle or crisis going without support, those whose mental health routines have been fundamentally altered because of this pandemic, or our frontline healthcare providers who may not be able to provide adequate mental health support to patients, or get it themselves. Most of all, let’s remember that we need a healthcare system that prevents crisis, not one that simply responds to it. A better mental health system is possible, but we need to invest in education, robust resources, digital support, and research so we can better understand mental health and additional threats to our mental health that may arise in the future. We need to come together and retool our mental health infrastructure, so that it’s strong enough to address the reality of Canada’s youth mental health crisis and weather the unthinkable. 

It is in that spirit that I share with you my story of hospitalization. Because, while that was the hardest time of my life thus far, I overcame what felt like the impossible. My friends, family, and loved ones all came together to support me in my journey to recovery. That experience serves as a staunch reminder that we are resilient when we face challenges together. 

And we all have a role to play. Right now decision-makers and politicians must ensure there is adequate funding to support our mental health and wellbeing, especially those who struggle with severe mental illness. And we, as individuals, need to look out for one another, educate ourselves about the warning signs of extreme struggle or crisis, and ensure we check-in and help those around us get the support they need and deserve. This period of time should be a lesson in why we need to prioritize mental health, prepare for crisis, and invest in mental health resources. The steps we take now will save lives today and down the road.