Mental health hospitalizations involving young people in Quebec on the rise
By Jacob Serebrin
MONTREAL — The number of Quebecers aged 12 to 17 admitted to hospital for mental health reasons following an emergency room visit increased 40 per cent in January and February over the same period last year.
That’s according to a new report by a provincial health research institute, which looked at mental health-related emergency room visits and hospital admissions involving adolescents during the pandemic.
Dr. Martin Gignac, director of pediatric psychiatry at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, said the facility doesn’t have enough resources to deal with the “wave” of mental health consultation involving children, adding that he is forced to find room for patients on the medical and surgical wards.
“We have eight beds for psychiatry and our beds are often occupied over capacity, so we end up having 12 or 14 patients a day even though we have a capacity for eight,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
At the children’s hospital, emergency room consultations related to mental health rose 35 per cent during the first three months of 2021 when compared to the first three months of 2020, Gignac said.
He said he’s seeing a big rise in suicidality among young people.
In its report, the Institut national d’excellence en sante et services sociaux compared emergency room visits by adolescents during the period between March 1, 2019, and February 29, 2020, with visits during the same period a year later.
It found that while emergency room visits by young people dropped significantly in the spring of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, the number of visits for mental heath reasons began to rise last summer and have remained at levels comparable to the year before.
Visits for non-mental health reasons, however, have remained well below the levels reported the year before the pandemic.
The reasons behind the rise of mental health cases among children are likely multifaceted, Gignac said.
“I don’t think the sole reason is the pandemic; I don’t think the sole reason is the measures that were put into place, measures that were necessary,” he said. But many vulnerable young people who had found ways to maintain a balance in their lives are now struggling with a lack of socialization and activities, like sports, Gignac added.
“A lot of teenagers used to have activities, or ways to manage their stress level that are not accessible anymore,” he said.
Others, Gignac said, are struggling with the mixture of online and in-person classes.
“Some of them have been struggling a lot with distance learning and now they’re failing grades, and they get discouraged, and for some of them it becomes more hopeless and then they end up having suicidal thoughts,” he said.
Hospitalizations related to eating disorders have increased significantly during the pandemic, the report found, rising 122 per cent compared to the same period a year prior.
While it’s too early to say what the long-term consequences will be, Gignac said he is concerned about young people dropping out of school, which will have an impact on their lives.
Dr. Cecile Rousseau, a psychiatry professor at McGill University, said teenagers face a “paradoxical injunction” during the pandemic — they must continue to grow into young adults, a process that involves socialization and trial and error as they become more autonomous, while also staying at home.
“It goes against not only their developmental needs, but what society expects from them,” she said.
Rousseau said psychological distress was rising among youth before the pandemic and that it’s important to separate being sad and anxious because of the health crisis — a normal response to a stressful situation — from mental disorders.
“We should be very, very careful not to pathologize the normal response to stress,” she said.
Rousseau said she’s not particularly worried about the long-term impacts and expects most young people will recover quickly as life returns to normal, though she said some could be left with “patterns of dysfunction” such as eating disorders, which will be difficult to solve.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Quebec government said people who are severely immunosuppressed or receiving kidney dialysis can get a second dose of COVID-19 vaccine earlier than planned.
The Health Department said the new directive is aimed at people considered at high risk of complications from COVID-19. It said those people will be able to get a second dose of vaccine within 28 days instead of 112 days, which is the delay for the general public.
People affected by the change include patients on dialysis for severe kidney disease, patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer, and patients who have had an organ transplant or a stem cell transplant.
Health officials reported 745 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 11 deaths linked to the disease, including three within the previous 24 hours. They said hospitalizations dropped by 10, to 530, and 126 people were in intensive care, a drop of two.
The province said it administered 72,946 doses of vaccine Tuesday, for a total of 3,918,884; about 44 per cent of Quebecers have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Quebec has reported a total of 360,201 cases of COVID-19 and 11,012 deaths linked to the virus.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.