After sharing an article on changes in children’s behaviour during the pandemic, my wife posted this question: “Anyone else feeling it? It’s been a rough couple of weeks for my son.”
Twelve responded within the hour. Darcy Herring was one of them. “My child spent the whole day in his bed,” she wrote. “He isn’t sick, but wow; am I worried about him!”
Since forced isolation and school closures, I’ve witnessed behaviour changes in my own children. So, I followed up with Herring.
“I worry about depression in my (8-year-old) child,” she tells me. “He’s secluding himself, not wanting to talk to friends. Meltdowns have increased. He doesn’t complete assigned homework. He’ll spend a full day in his room going into his shell.”
In the early days of the pandemic, officials leaned heavily on the precautionary principle – a framework used within public health to guide decisions when evidence is scarce. The principle is akin to a credible hunch – when we know something is amiss but don’t know exactly what to do about it. It’s an admission that complete evidence of risk is not required before we act to mitigate that risk. Applying this principle when COVID-19 presented itself resulted in quarantine and self-isolation measures – actions that undoubtedly saved lives and prevented thousands from falling ill.
But as we remain laser-focused on COVID-19, children’s mental health incidents are trending at harrowing levels. The Canadian Mental Health Association has reported a significant increase in mental health cases and reports the majority of Ontarians believe a mental health crisis is on the horizon.
So isn’t it time to apply the precautionary principle to children’s mental health? If we wait any longer, aren’t we just trading one pandemic for another?
We don’t have all the evidence but we have enough to move forward in a rational manner. There have been plenty of recent incidents to recognize we are at risk of broader social issues including unsafe home environments, deep financial insecurity and frightening rates of anxiety and depression among children. It’s not healthy behaviour for a normally active 8-year-old to mope around his room all day disengaging from friends. Nor is it healthy for a child to whip sharpened pencils across the room or cry themselves to sleep, scenes that are unfolding within my own home. These too are unhealthy behaviours. I have a hunch others would agree.
Government officials repeat the mantra that protecting the health and safety of children is their No. 1 priority. But what needs to be realized is health goes beyond avoiding COVID-19. Health is complex and includes a holistic approach to physical, emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing. It involves critically assessing the needs of a population and responding appropriately to those needs.
Through government actions, most of us may avoid contracting COVID-19. This should be applauded. But what we’ve now created is a precarious environment in which we will be forced to deal with a slew of other health issues. Utilizing the precautionary principle on children’s mental health would help mitigate some of these challenges. It would result in concerted and sustained efforts to help stabilize our children while we continue to navigate in unstable settings. If we fail to invest more attention and resources toward our children’s mental health, these cases most definitely will spin out of control.
“I’ve never seen him act this way,” Herring says of her son. “I worry whether he will go back to his normal self or stay this way.” She pauses before finishing, her voice shaky. “Anxiety is a major factor in our world. We had it under control … but now it’s not.”