Pandemic increased mental health support requests for Manitoba teens, advocates say

More young people are reaching out for help to deal with depression and anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on schools, according to mental health advocates in Winnipeg.

In the fall of 2020, one in three youth who texted Kids Help Phone — a national service offering support and referrals to young people via phone, texting and online support — said that feelings related to returning to school contributed to their distress. That was the third-highest reported issue, behind loneliness and general mental illness, said associate vice-president Lindsey Coulter.

“I never wanted to talk about my depression,” said one 15-year-old girl who did not want to be identified for privacy reasons.

The teen, who CBC is calling Sierra, said when schools first shut down last March she was devastated. Sierra said remote learning was not for her because of a learning disability.

“It was really stressful,” said Sierra. “For me I have to see everything in person because it’s too hard for me to learn online, if I don’t see it being done in person, I don’t understand,” Sierra said.

Coulter said in 2020, Kids Help Phone had more than 4.5 million connections with young people through phone calls and texts, compared to 1.9 million in 2019.

Summer camp for mental health support

Sierra was one of 50 teens who participated in a new camp last summer hosted by the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba.

The MAD camp — which stands for music, art, and dance — is a new program sponsored by the United Way. It’s aimed for teens aged 13 to 17 who are struggling with anxiety and other mental health issues.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in calls,” said Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba Executive Director Rita Chahal.

“Last summer right, after things went into lockdown, we were hearing from many parents and how the kids were experiencing a lot of isolation, depression and anxiety,” Chahal said, adding some kids struggled with thoughts of suicide. 

Schools in Manitoba first shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, forcing students and staff to pivot to remote learning. Since then, Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba said it has received an increase in calls from parents wanting help for their teens who are struggling with anxiety and depression because of the pandemic. (John Einarson/CBC)

The camp offered youth a safe place to talk and express their feelings through art and music, and there are plans to hold another camp this summer.

Sierra says the camp helped put her on a path to recovery, as she gained confidence, made new friends, took part in singing and was part of a performance. 

“It helped me with my depression a lot and it kept me busy because I didn’t see many people.. and it got me out of the house,” she said.

That was a big shift from her life in the early pandemic. When recreation activities were put on hold because of COVID-19 last year, Sierra said she became more withdrawn at home spending lots of time in her room alone.

“I really missed my friends, it was so hard,” she said.

Peer support groups offered in schools

The Mood Disorders Association recently hired a youth coordinator to work with Manitoba schools on how to manage anxiety among students during the pandemic.

“They want presentations about our organization, and things like depression, and make sure if youth are experiencing it, I would be able to provide them with a peer support group,” said Mood Disorders youth coordinator Dana Lance. 

Lance said she is currently working with four schools in Winnipeg.

Simeran Gill is a grade 12 student from Maples Collegiate who said she has adjusted well one year after the pandemic hit Manitoba. (John Einarson)

CBC also spoke with other teens who said they learned a lot about themselves during the pandemic this past year.

“I did realize that I do depend on others and I realized I’m not as independent as I thought I would be,” said grade 12 student Simeran Gill, who is graduating from Maples Collegiate this year.

“I had little bits of panic like ‘oh I have a test and I didn’t study and it’s online,’ so I did lots of procrastinating,” she said. 

“What I learned about myself was that I had a lot more weaknesses that I thought,” said Anne Detablan, another grade 12 student.

“I’m considered a social butterfly,” she said. “I had to spend more time by myself.”

Watch for isolation and withdrawal: teen

As for Sierra, she wants other young people to know that it’s okay to ask for help.

She said there are warning signs to watch for. “Like not really wanting to do stuff that you normally like to do, and not wanting to leave your room,” Sierra said. “For me, I stopped drawing, that’s my coping mechanism.”

Sierra’s mother echoed the importance of school in a letter to CBC.

“What many do not realize is that school is a safe haven for them,” she wrote..

She said the camp has been a “game changer,” for her daughter who has been judged and shunned by her peers because of her learning disability. 

“As adults we tend to forget this. It isn’t just us who have been affected. Yes many people lost their jobs and businesses have closed, but mentally our youth have also had to sacrifice a lot as well. “

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