March 8, 2021

The declining mental health of Alberta’s youth

Carla Hilario is working to understand the relationships between COVID-19, the associated public health measures, and the mental health of young Albertans.

Photo credit: Laughing Dog Photography

A new University of Alberta research project out of the Faculty of Nursing looks to shed light on the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of Alberta’s adolescents.

“Emerging data shows poorer levels of mental health among young people in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says project lead Carla Hilario, an assistant professor within the Faculty of Nursing. “Youth have experienced the greatest declines since the pandemic began.”

According to Statistics Canada, before the pandemic, 60 per cent of youth aged 15-24 reported excellent or very good mental health—a number that dropped to 40 per cent by July 2020.

Hilario says public health measures around contact restriction and physical distancing have had a unique effect on teens. In addition to quarantine and social distancing, she notes they also faced school closure and disruptions in terms of not being able to have the same peer support and connection to other people in their communities such as teachers or other caring adults.

“This loss or reduction of regular social interactions and support can contribute to poorer mental health and to mental illness, including depression and anxiety,” she says. “Understanding the effects of public health measures is a crucial step toward informing current and future planning around Alberta’s adolescent mental health services, supports, and strategies.”

Hilario is working with community-based organizations in Alberta to invite youth perspectives on how the pandemic is affecting their mental health, as well as determine the programs and services they found helpful—or wish were available for them.

Although many mental health initiatives have pivoted to virtual platforms since last year, Hilario explains that online access can be a huge challenge for some teens who would normally utilize in-person mental health services.

“There are teens who don’t have access to reliable Wi-Fi, let alone a computer or private space to have that conversation with a mental health professional,” she says.

Using a social determinants of health framework to make sense of the data, Hilario will contextualize the youth’s perspectives and examine the emerging patterns and themes to make sense of what factors are playing the largest role in mental health indicators. Social determinants of mental health—like income, unemployment and job security, social exclusion/inclusion, and access to health services—can influence health equity in positive and negative ways.

“By gaining insight from the perspective of youth themselves about what their experiences were like during the pandemic, we can better understand the relationships between the pandemic, the associated public health measures, and the mental health of young Albertans.

Hilario will also use the findings to identify and create a list of mental health resources, supports, and services that the teens found helpful to share with other youth and to other youth-serving organizations, both in Alberta and Canada.

“It is important to gain a better understanding of what services really helped and why,” explains Hilario. “If we are able to learn from young people what support they wish they had, we can move closer towards services and programs that are responsive to their needs.”

Carla Hilario’s Clinical/Community Research Integration Support Program (CRISP) project is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.

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