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We don’t provide mental health advice, counselling, or treatment. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact your local community crisis team. You can also reach out to the Indigenous Hope for Wellness Help Line 1-855-242-3310, the Black Youth Helpline 1-833-294-8650, or Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868.

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Are student mental health concerns rising?

Many reports suggest that child and youth mental health concerns rose over the pandemic. At the same time, more recent reports tell a story of recovery and hope as young people return to more typical patterns of daily life. So, are student mental health concerns rising? The short answer: The data story is still unfolding.

At School Mental Health Ontario, we’ve been closely following the research data on this question. We also hear from Ontario school boards on a regular basis through their School Mental Health Ontario implementation coach and routine data collection. Plus, close connections with teacher federations, principal associations, superintendent organizations and our CODE Advisory Team are important sources of information. And, of course, we are listening closely to what students are telling us, through the ThriveSMH ambassadors and #HearNowON survey and student forums.

Summary of evidence about youth mental health

Research conducted early in the pandemic was of variable quality, with many studies focused on broad point-in-time surveys, with no pre-pandemic comparisons and convenience (rather than representative) samples. Many of these spoke to high rates of distress, as would be expected given the disruptive and uncertain times we were in. 

Pediatric hospitals noted abrupt elevations in acute care visits for mental health concerns, particularly for eating disorders and substance use problems. Those with pre-existing mental health disorders appeared to be in greatest need of urgent care. 

In schools, rates of mental health distress were highest during lockdown periods. School mental health professionals (psychologists, psychological associates, social workers, psychotherapists) provided mental health check-ins and brief prevention and early intervention services through virtual care (or, later, hybrid services).

As public health restrictions eased and students returned to the regular pace of schools, symptoms related to anxiety and low mood were reduced. Recent reports summarizing several of the highest-quality studies suggest that adolescent and adult populations have been relatively stable, on balance, suggesting a sense of overall resiliency in the face of hardship.

Population-level studies on youth mental health don’t tell the complete story

Numerous research efforts have highlighted the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic. While everyone has experienced some level of disruption, hardship, inconvenience and disappointment, it has landed differently for some. These individuals and communities have had to endure more negative health impacts, financial strain, grief, and loss.

Depending on your viewpoint – population-level data, community-level data, hospital service data, individual or school experience – you may arrive at a different answer to the question, “Are student mental health concerns rising?”

In time, we will be able to look back and answer this question more definitively. For now, rather than offering a crisis narrative that is likely to yield simplistic, stop-gap solutions and runs the risk of dampening hope, a more nuanced response is required. 

At School Mental Health Ontario, we believe it is more accurate to say that:

Many variables affect mental health—it’s complex. Schools play an important role in supporting strong mental health every day. The focus in schools continues to be on wellness promotion, prevention, and early intervention. To find resources to support your work in school, visit our resource library.

Sun, Y., Wu, Y., Fan, S., et al. (2022). Comparison of mental health symptoms prior to and during COVID-19: Evidence from a systematic review and meta-analysis of 134 cohorts. BMJ, 380, e074224.

Madigan, S., Korczak, D. J., Vaillancourt, T., Racine, N., Hopkins, W. G., Pador, P., Hewitt, J. M. A., AlMousawi, B., McDonald, S., & Neville, R. D. (2023). Comparison of paediatric emergency department visits for attempted suicide, self-harm, and suicidal ideation before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry, 10(5), 342-351. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(23)00036-6. PMID: 36907199; PMCID: PMC10097509.

Newlove-Delgado, T., Russell, A. E., Mathews, F., Cross, L., Bryant, E., Gudka, R., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Ford, T. J. (2023). Annual research review: The impact of COVID-19 on psychopathology in children and young people worldwide: Systematic review of studies with pre- and within-pandemic data. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 64(4), 611-640. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13716. PMID: 36421049.Apr;64(4):611-640. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13716. Epub 2022 Nov 24. PMID: 36421049.