The COVID-19 pandemic has caused intense anxiety and stress resulting in profound mental health consequences. Being described as the “Fourth Wave” of the pandemic, these mental health consequences are expected to result in significant health and social costs. As mental health and child development researchers affiliated with the Social Exposome Research Cluster (University of British Columbia), in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association, we measured the mental health impacts of COVID-19, including the impacts on families and children.

Based on results of our nationally representative survey examining the mental health impacts of the pandemic in Canada, we found that parents living with children under the age of 18 were particularly hard hit. Nearly one in two parents reported worse mental health, and many reported increased alcohol consumption (28%), suicidal thoughts (8%), and stress about being safe from domestic violence (12%) due to the pandemic. These outcomes were significantly worse for parents living with children under the age of 18 compared to those without children under the age of 18 at home. Their children were also affected. One in four parents described a deterioration in their children’s mental health. Parents also reported increased conflicts with their children, more yelling/shouting, greater levels of disciplining, and using harsh words with their children due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an effort to “flatten the curve,” provinces and territories across Canada have implemented policies requiring closure of offices, businesses, schools, and child care. Following approximately three months of physical distancing measures, we have entered the reopening phase.

However, as a result of “Go home and stay home” directives, the pandemic has created a perfect storm of stress for children and their parents. Its impacts have deepened existing health and social inequities — disproportionately affecting families who face social and structural disadvantages as a result of income, systemic racism, health, and/or mental health status. Indeed, in the wake of COVID-19, many Canadian families reported being affected by concerns about income, job losses, and food insecurity. These types of stressors are linked to long-term mental health consequences, including suicide, which our current mental health systems have insufficient capacity to address.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to reform our systems to ensure that everyone in Canada has equitable access to mental health resources as well as the underlying social and economic supports that promote mental health and wellbeing. These reforms need to include access to affordable, inclusive child care and after school care programs. Schools and child care are more than learning environments—they can be sources of safety and security for children. For parents, schools and child care provide the opportunity to participate in the economy and earn an income. Without these, mental health inequities among children and families will grow as will gender inequities in the workforce. Further, offering the internet as a basic service can begin to address the digital divide, which puts women and marginalized groups, in particular, at a disadvantage. Healthy school food programs address problems of health inequity and are especially beneficial for children from low income households.
Reforms within our mental health and social support systems are also required, including better access to services and supports across the spectrum of mental health needs. This includes access to mental health services for those with acute illnesses and publicly-funded psychotherapy. Our social systems need to be conducive to mental health and responsive to the underlying causes of mental health deterioration. In the context of the pandemic, creative solutions are needed to address economic insecurity as well as loss of supports and resources supporting children and families. Poverty reduction strategies such as universal basic income should be considered to mitigate the consequences of job losses and economic instability.

As decision-makers plan recovery strategies to address the significant and far-reaching consequences of the pandemic, we urge leaders to create opportunities to include and respond to a diversity of voices, including those that are often underrepresented due to discrimination. By implementing policies that protect and care for the mental health of all children and families, Canada will be strongly positioned to heal and recover through the pandemic and beyond.