‘Completely unsustainable’: Alberta doctors raise alarms over youth mental health

“In the upcoming budget, we need to see significantly more funds allocated towards child and adolescent mental health. It has been chronically underfunded”

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Alberta psychiatrists raising alarms over youth mental health and the lack of services to help them say the pandemic compounded issues on the rise for the last decade.

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Dr. Sterling Sparshu, president of the Alberta Medical Association’s (AMA) section of child and adolescent psychiatry, said there have been huge pressures on the system and on children’s mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of already existing issues that have been on the rise for at least a decade.

“We have this background of youth becoming increasingly sick, struggling with more illness, struggling with more severe illness, and mounting pressures on our health-care system, where that’s leading to significant delays in care,” Sparshu said, arguing the pandemic has resulted in a lot of the natural supports for children going away.

“So things like the ability to regularly engage in sports, things like going on vacation, spending time with family, spending time with friends, having the support of teachers, both socially and academically, to thrive at school.”

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The sense of security children would normally have has been chiselled away, as they get sick, or witness their loved ones get sick, and in some cases, die.

“That’s something that no child should have to experience and they have been experiencing now for years, which when you think of the lifespan of kids so far, that is a significant chunk of their life. Look at a 10-year-old, that’s a fifth of their life that they have lived under these incredibly abnormal circumstances,” Sparshu said.

“As a result of that, what we have seen is mental illness at a level that is completely unsustainable. We see huge suffering and huge impairment in many children and we see big delays in care as well.”

Increase in eating disorders

Youth have been coming in with depression, anxiety, ADHD, externalizing behaviours such as aggression and irritability, along with substance use particularly with marijuana, and self-harm and suicidality.

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There has also been a huge increase in eating disorders, Sparshu said.

“That’s especially concerning because of all of our mental health disorders that we see in children and adolescents, eating disorders are one of the most deadly because we have a combination of the risks due to the illness, such as self-harm and suicide, paired with severe medical complications,” he said.

Youth losing their natural supports, struggling with self-esteem, self-worth and feeling isolated and disconnected means they will seek out stability and a sense of control.

“They can control what they put into their bodies. They can control how much they weigh. So for many, it gives them a sense of stability that has really been lacking over the last several years,” Sparshu said.

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Many children, especially early on in the pandemic, have also been afraid to come to clinics or emergency departments because they did not want to get COVID. There have also been delays to rolling out virtual care for children, Sparshu said.

“We’ve got chronic challenges with our system. We’ve got mounting problems with mental health amongst our youth. We’ve got COVID and everything that’s brought with it. And then we have this gap and delay in care, which has made everything so much more challenging.”

‘Chronically underfunded’

In the upcoming provincial budget, both the AMA and the Alberta Psychiatric Association (APA) say they would like to see the province make youth mental health a priority.

It has been chronically underfunded,” said Sparshu, adding working long hours has also led to burnout among field professionals, and said there is a need for more therapists, nurses, and psychiatrists.

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“The only reason, really, the mental health care system has continued for as long as it has is because we have people working exceptionally hard because we do not want kids left behind. We also need adequate funding for our services so that we can keep kids until they’re healthy to keep them out of this revolving-door scenario.”

‘There is more work to do’: UCP

In a statement, Eric Engler, press secretary for the Associate Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, said the government recognizes the pandemic and related restrictions have affected the mental wellness of Alberta’s youth.

He said the province appreciates the commitment from the APA and AMA to work with government in building a comprehensive system that supports prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery.

“We know there is more work to do, and we are currently participating in the creation of a cross-ministry action plan to build a comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care for all Albertans, including youth,” Engler said.

“We look forward to making further announcements to improve youth mental wellness as part of Budget 2022/23.”

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Twitter.com/JunkerAnna

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