Too Many Kids Are Waiting Years for Mental Health Treatment
A new report worries that we're not doing enough to prevent anxiety disorders.
Posted October 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- A new report for paediatricians is sounding the alarm about increasing rates of anxiety among children.
- While waitlists for treatment have grown to 2.5 years in some places, there is plenty that parents, educators and family doctors can do to help.
- Parents can help their children by offering them routines, reasonable exposure to stress, and keeping their own anxiety in check.
A just-released report in Canada is suggesting new guidelines for paediatricians and mental health care providers to address the ever-growing number of children requesting mental health interventions, especially for anxiety. Those numbers have been steadily rising for the past two decades, with the pandemic making things even worse. While overall hospitalizations may have slightly decreased (likely because hospitals were turning away patients to keep beds open for those with COVID-19), the percentage of children who are being admitted to hospital with anxiety or depression continues to climb. It’s a ticking time bomb with no quick way to deactivate.
A 2020 study in Ontario, Canada’s most populace province, found wait times for publicly funded services were as long as two and half years. For children needing care, that might as well be a lifetime. A problem like anxiety doesn’t just affect one dimension of a child’s life. It infiltrates every aspect of the child’s day-to-day activities, from paying attention at school to making friends, participating in sports and how they relate with parents and other caregivers. It’s like a big stop sign on a child’s path to successful development.
In response, paediatricians (and other health care providers) are being told to shoulder some of the burden and do whatever they can to detect earlier instances of anxiety (when it comes to preventing mental illness, the earlier we diagnose a problem, the easier it is to intervene). Here are a few of the report’s suggestions for better prevention and treatment:
1. Get kids to be more active. While it would be nice to see physical education become a mandatory part of each and every school day (and to offer children better, more inclusive ways to exercise than just teaching them to play sports like volleyball and tennis), few schools insist that children be active, especially as they get into the upper grades when anxiety is more likely to be a catastrophic strain on development.
2. Help parents to help their kids. Professional help may be what every caregiver wants, but in fact parents and caregivers are still the ones with the proximity to their kids to do the most good. Small things matter. Insist an anxious child participate in their family and community, whether that is helping to buy groceries, or looking after a neighbor’s dog while they’re away. When kids are given too much freedom to opt out and hide from social interactions and reasonable expectations to contribute, their anxiety only gets worse.
3. Offer children routines. A child whose day is structured with regular mealtimes, bedtimes and expectations to do chores is a child who will show much greater resilience to anxiety. Routines create both a sense of safety and the predictability that kids need to feel emotionally and physically secure. Helping with yard work can be a mental health intervention. So too is eating together as a family and getting enough sleep (with everyone’s smartphones turned off).
4. Place reasonable and age-appropriate limits on the use of social media. It is impossible to completely control a child’s life online, but ensuring they have some time offline every day (and a complete digital fast now and again during the holidays) may help an anxious child deal with the pressure of social comparisons and the ever-present FOMO (fear of missing out).
5. Parents need to keep their own anxiety in check. Catastrophizing parents who worry about whether their 8-year-old’s low mark on a class test will change the course of their child’s path into university are simply putting their child at greater risk of failure and a lifetime of anxiety. Children learn from their parents how to handle stress. When adults remain calm under stress, children have a better chance of doing the same.
6. Remove the triggers which make the child anxious (only temporarily) but keep on the lookout for opportunities to offer a child age-appropriate exposure to situations that will force them to learn new coping skills. A life without anxiety-provoking experiences is not one that will prepare children to live on their own or be employed. Kids need to be stressed in ways they can manage.
We can only hope that some of these ideas help. A decade ago we expected 4% of teenagers to report an anxiety disorder. These days that number has jumped to between 11% and 19%. Something needs to be done. Relying only on mental health professionals is producing long waitlists and even more cases of disorder. It’s time caregivers, schools, family doctors and everyone else who cares about children offered what they can to help kids avoid developmental perils like anxiety.
Canadian Paediatric Society, Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee (2022). Anxiety in children and youth: Part 1 - Diagnosis. Available online: https://cps.ca/en/documents/position/anxiety-in-children-and-youth-diag…