NORTH BAY -- Experts in North Bay say the pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of children and youth as the COVID-19 virus quickly approaches the one-year mark.

“Children, families and teens are coming in, sharing concerns around anxiety, levels of stress, some feelings of low mood and depression,” said Kelly Smirle, a child and youth mental-health manager for Hands – The Family Help Network in North Bay. “Those are things we would normally see, but the increase is around the pandemic.”

The lockdown and other restrictions are leading to challenges, Smirle said, affecting all ages.

“How do we socialize? That’s more impacting teens a lot," she said. "How do we manage life at home when we can’t necessarily reach out to our other family supports? That’s increasing anxiety for families.

"And really just a lot of overall anxiety and stress and sort of pandemic, feeling tired of the pandemic and wanting to be able to get the support of socializing and reaching out.”

The Ontario government has committed $147 million to address the impact the pandemic is having on mental health, with Hands receiving $607,000.

$30M for children and youth

It was released as one-time funding, with $30 million targeted to children and youth mental-health services.

“We’re partnering with a number of child- and youth-serving agencies in order to provide those mental-health services,” said Michelle Dermenjian, the child and youth services director at Hands.

“So we’re looking to invest in more counsellors, to provide both in-person and virtual services. We’re looking to see if we can increase the hours of service we’re available. We’re also looking to expand, specifically, virtual supports to clients.”

The funding will also be used for outreach services. Dermenjian said hands will be partnering with Children Welfare to help “decrease the likelihood for children coming into child welfare” and to help decrease challenges for families, as well as provide additional supports.

During the beginning of the pandemic, Hands was able to quickly switch to virtual services to connect with clients. The agency is still offering in-person options when virtual isn’t an option.

“It’s so important for families to be able to reach out and access the mental-health services,” said Smirle. “At Hands right now, we’re able to offer … twice a week a kind of virtual walk-in clinics to access services. We’ve been able to maintain offering our treatment groups throughout this pandemic and virtual and in-person services for clients and families.”

Dermenjian said the virtual walk-in clinics have seen a lot more volume.

Demand has soared

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were having about 10 new clients a week … and now we’re at about 40 clients per week just at Hands,” she said.

Although experts agree the increased demand for services doesn’t come as a surprise, there was actually a time during the pandemic where demand for services dropped.

“At the beginning of the pandemic with children and youth being returned to their families and not having the pressures of school, we actually saw an initial decrease,” said Dermenjian.

But as the pandemic continued, families experienced growing pressure on finances, jobs, and the pressure of trying to juggle both their jobs and responding to the needs of children.

Officials said the virtual platform has been successful throughout the pandemic and has given them the opportunity to reach more people and provide more flexibility. It is something the agency plans to continue long term.