As the unit manager for the Foster Care Clinic at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital, Bonnie Ford has seen how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health of vulnerable youth.
“At first when the pandemic started, everything went quiet. Over time, the issues got bigger, and there were more requests for mental health support.”
Isolation is probably the number one issue, Bonnie says. “They don’t have access to those things they’re used to doing or even to family. The repercussions of that are rising anxiety, depression, suicidality, and so they’re more into chatting online, which is not necessarily the safest thing to do, or they’ll turn to high-risk behaviours, like cutting or doing drugs, more than other supports that are safer.”
Increased social isolation has been a common issue for youth at other clinics as well. Rob MacDonald, registered psychologist and clinical supervisor for mental health and addictions in Bonnyville, has also seen youth struggle with more stress in their home environment and stress from having to learn online. And these issues have been elevated by a general loss of usual coping mechanisms.
“COVID-19 has taken whatever was there and made it worse. If they were already dealing with anxiety, depression, isolation or a chaotic home environment, they used to have various means of coping with that, which might have meant going to the skate park, hanging out with other friends or just wandering about. A thousand little things that used to be there to mitigate what was happening aren’t there anymore, and so all the problems are just sort of left to free reign.”
While mental health staff in both places have continued to meet with high-risk youth in person, they’ve also adapted their services to provide support through Zoom and over the telephone. A year after the start of the pandemic, they continue to use technology to offer advice and counselling.
For Bonnyville staff, the choice of service delivery depends mostly on the client’s needs or preferences, says Rob.
“There have been times when we’ve encouraged people to choose more Zoom or in-person sessions, but we try to balance it 50-50.”
Bonnie’s team at the Foster Care Clinic has also worked on creating networks of people for teens to reach out to. They encourage youth to keep connected with their caseworkers and teachers at school and to call the mental health crisis team, the mobile response team or the distress line if they need help.
Though they’re able to use technology for appointments, both Bonnie and Rob recognize that in-person counselling is best for youth with mental health issues, especially high-risk teens.
“They are not always in the safest environment to actually be private, especially if they are at home and both their parents are at home,” says Bonnie.
Bonnie foresees issues affecting vulnerable youth following the pandemic, such as increased fear and worry about the future and what’s going to happen for them, which can lead to anxiety and depression. For example, teens who’ve struggled with online schooling may have anxiety about their education and need extra support.
Looking ahead, the Foster Care Clinic hopes to increase its staff to provide more support for teens at risk, who often need immediate assistance for urgent issues that arise without notice. In addition to coming to the clinic to see the doctor, youth will be able to see a nurse practitioner, nurse, child life specialist or social worker.
“We can provide more services and better access to service if they can just come and see another multidiscipline team member. And that might be all they need for that day, just to get them through.”