“Control what you can”: Psychologist shares myths and facts on pandemic mental health

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, its effects on the mental health of children and young people are becoming better understood. Kim Lavoie, a psychology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, has been tracking the mental health impacts of the pandemic since spring 2020.

Some of the data presented by Lavoie challenges common assumptions about children’s mental health during the pandemic. She cited a Statistics Canada survey from late 2021 which indicated that 60 per cent of respondents aged 12-17 said their mental health had not changed during the pandemic; 20 per cent reported that their mental health had deteriorated and the remaining 20 per cent said it had improved. Data from the Institut national de santé public du Québec (INSPQ) showed no significant change in the frequency of suicide attempts in children and teens. Lavoie did observe a slight uptick in the frequency of suicide attempts among girls and young women aged 15-19, but noted that that trend began in 2019, predating the pandemic.

After each pandemic-related wave of school closures, public health officials in Quebec have argued that reopening schools as soon as safely possible, arguing that in-person learning was key for the mental health of children and teens. However, Lavoie said available data did not show a strong correlation between school closures and suicide attempts or reports of increased psychological distress among young people.

“From a scientific perspective, there is evidence that kids are in distress, but there is no evidence that school closures are the cause and school reopenings the solution,” she said. “The assumption was made that they were distressed because of school closures, but there’s never been evidence of that.”

Lavoie, the mother of two young teenagers, emphasizes that just because school closures don’t appear to be the source of kids’ and teens’ distress doesn’t mean that distress doesn’t exist.

“One of the highest risk factors for psychological distress is being in a high-risk situation with no control,” she says. “Kids are the passive recipients of everyone else’s decisions, and we have sent them back to school in dangerous situations. Older children do understand what’s going on. They know they are going into a building with no ventilation and 35 kids in a class. They are aware that they live with vulnerable family members and they’re worried about infecting their families.”

Lavoie’s advice to children, teens and parents is to control what they can control in a period rife with uncertainty. “The two things we control are our own behaviour and how we talk to ourselves about what we’re experiencing,” she says. “We can improve ventilation, we can wear masks, we can get vaccinated and we can be strategic about who we interact with in person. Shared decision making is very empowering – kids will identify solutions they can implement, and that gives them a sense of control. There are a lot of things we still control.”

She advises parents to “be flexible, adapt your expectations and give kids permission to lower the bar” while doing their best to maintain normal routines.

“Young people aged 15-25 have probably lost the most – they are missing out on the best years of their lives, and there is going to be some grieving that they will do,” she says. “They are our future leaders, so hopefully they’re taking notes on what to do and what not to do in a crisis. Control what you can, and we will get out of this.”

She believes data will be key to the gradual and safe end of pandemic restrictions. However, much of the data on case numbers and location-specific outbreaks that was collected during earlier waves ceased to be collected as the Omicron wave brought about huge spikes in case numbers late last year.

“The fact that we are done with the pandemic is a delusion – just telling myself it’s summer isn’t going to make it summer,” she says. “I’m actually quite in favour of loosening things up, but we need the tools to do that effectively, and we don’t have them. We need the data.”

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