It’s common knowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on mental health. For teenagers, the sudden change in routine that included remote learning, social distancing, and isolation from friends and family forced them to adapt to a new way of life. This led to an increase in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Michelle Bertrand, M.A, MFT, is a licensed psychologist in private practice since 2003 and trained marital and family therapist. She says, “Since the pandemic, there has been a major increase in demand for mental health services for teens. Making referrals has been very difficult because too many services and providers have long waiting lists.”

But teen mental health was already in jeopardy before the pandemic. The pandemic simply exacerbated it. One major contributing factor is social media as it slowly began to replace human interaction, leading to detrimental problems such as self-esteem and body image issues, sexual exploitation, and cyberbullying.

According to the Toronto star, antidepressant use among youth is skyrocketing across Canada. The doctors who prescribe these drugs say they have little choice because teens can’t wait nine months or longer for therapy. According to Statistics Canadas, the cost of prescribed medication use for teens jumped from $14.8 billion in 2002 to $34.3 billion in 2019. Additionally, the Canadian Pediatric Society claims that hospitalizations and emergency room visits for mental health conditions such as eating disorders, anxiety, and suicide attempts have all been on the rise.

The central issue is that the needs of teens outweigh the services available. Many teens who seek support find it difficult to access. Some longer-term issues are also at play, such as years of under-funding of children’s services. This can be especially damaging because teens are developing their brains and identity. If mental health issues prevail, it can disrupt that process.

So how can we address this crisis? This is a multi layered question. Some solutions include increasing access to mental health services, promoting physical activity and healthy eating, and ensuring that routine healthcare services are accessible to all teens. This is easier said than done. Governments will need to prioritize and invest in mental health services for youth.

Schools can also help students learn tools to process their emotions and recognize signs of mental health issues. They can change certain policies or create new ones to provide more support. Psychologists can also build training programs to help teachers and staff create supportive classrooms.

Bertrand also emphasizes the importance of family support. “As a parent, be your child’s best advocate and seek support for yourself if you feel you are overwhelmed by the process, or unsure how to proceed,” she advises. “Be curious about their world by listening more rather than jumping in with advice. Also, help your child gain autonomy by « coaching » them through their challenges rather than managing it for them.”

Addressing the teen mental health crisis will take time, but raising awareness and starting a dialogue about it is the first step towards helping teens thrive, both now and in the future.