Basketball nets have been removed at a school closed due to COVID-19 in Mississauga, Ont., on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Advocates are mounting a campaign to declare a crisis among Canadian youth as children’s hospitals report a staggering rise in the demand for mental health services during the pandemic.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Basketball nets have been removed at a school closed due to COVID-19 in Mississauga, Ont., on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Advocates are mounting a campaign to declare a crisis among Canadian youth as children’s hospitals report a staggering rise in the demand for mental health services during the pandemic.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Advocates say Canada’s youth mental health crisis has ‘life and death’ stakes

#CodePink campaign urges action to combat the havoc the pandemic is wreaking on youth

Advocates are mounting a campaign to declare a crisis among Canadian youth as children’s hospitals report a staggering rise in demand for mental health services during the pandemic.

The #CodePink campaign — named after the medical code for a pediatric emergency — is urging federal and provincial authorities to address the struggles young Canadians face between school closures, restrictions on recreational activities and social isolation.

“We have reached a point where there’s no turning back and the implications that kids are experiencing will be felt now and for many years to come,” says Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada, which is leading the campaign launched Wednesday.

“It really is incumbent on all of us as adults, and particularly our government leaders, to take the urgent action that’s required to help our children survive.”

Austin says children have “suffered silently” as the COVID-19 crisis has deprived them of opportunities for emotional, social and physical development. But the statistics speak volumes about the pandemic’s impacts on the next generation’s health and wellbeing, she says.

A survey of 14 children’s hospitals suggests that admissions following suicide attempts doubled on average between March 2020 and January 2021 compared to the same period the year before, according to a report by Children’s Healthcare Canada.

The association also finds that children’s hospitals saw a three-fold increase in admissions related to substance use, and admissions for complex eating disorders rose by 63 per cent.

“We’re talking about issues of life and death,” says Austin. “Our future is in jeopardy.”

Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children is among the many children’s health organizations backing the #CodePink campaign’s calls for the safe and swift reopening of schools and recreational facilities and increased investment in youth mental health services.

SickKids president and CEO Dr. Ronald Cohn says the hospital’s in-patient mental health unit has been at roughly 130 per cent capacity for several months, and the emergency room has also seen an influx of patients seeking psychological care.

Cohn notes that hospitals tend to treat the most severe cases, so these numbers only offer a glimpse into the full scope of the youth mental health crisis.

“I don’t think there’s a single child that doesn’t in one way or another deal with the pressures of the pandemic,” says Cohn.

“As we get to the other end of this pandemic, I hope that we are not talking about a generation that is at risk…. It’s just going to require a special focus on really making children a priority.”

—Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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