Even before the pandemic began, Ontario students were experiencing the highest levels of suicidal ideation and serious psychological distress ever recorded, according to the latest Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) Mental Health and Well-Being Report, released by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The data were collected between November 2018 and June 2019 among 14,142 students in grades 7 to 12. The OSDUHS is Canada’s longest-running study of mental health and substance use among youth.
Suicidal ideation is currently the highest on record for this survey since CAMH began monitoring it in 2001. One in six students (16 per cent) had serious thoughts about suicide in the year preceding the survey. Serious psychological distress—which refers to symptoms of anxiety or depression—has also been rising steadily among Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 since it was first monitored in 2013. One in five students (21 per cent) reported serious psychological distress, almost double the rate it was just six years prior.
“As concerning as these numbers are, they likely underestimate the degree of suicidal ideation and psychological distress currently experienced by Ontario students, because all the survey data predate the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Hayley Hamilton, Senior Scientist in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, and survey co-lead. “These data reinforce the urgent need to provide mental health supports to this cohort during this difficult time.”
Mental health care
Compounding the rising numbers in reports of poor mental health is a parallel increase in the percentage of students reporting unmet mental health needs. While more than one-quarter of students (27 per cent) engaged with a mental health professional at least once during the previous year, more than one-third said that there was a time when they wanted to talk to someone about a mental health problem but did not know where to turn. Overall, the percentage of students reporting unmet needs for mental health support has spiked from 28 to 35 per cent in the past six years.
“Students are seeking help for their mental health at much higher rates than in the past, but many still don’t know how to seek support,” said Dr. Joanna Henderson, Director, Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth & Family Mental Health, and Executive Director, Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario. “There are clearly unmet needs that need to be filled, and the need for more visibility of mental health services in schools and the community.”
Screen time and social media
By a variety of measures, students are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. One in five students (21 per cent) spend five hours or more each day on social media sites, almost double the number from six years prior.
One-quarter of students (24 per cent) play video games on an almost-daily basis and one in seven (14 per cent) report symptoms of a video game problem, including disruption to family and school life.
When all electronic devices are factored in, including smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers and smart watches, more than one in three high school students (35 per cent) report spending five or more hours a day staring at screens in their spare time. This does not include any screen time devoted to school work or homework.
While more than half of students (58 per cent) rate their physical health as excellent or very good, only one in five (21 per cent) met the recommended daily physical activity guidelines (defined as at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity per day). Almost two-thirds of students (63 per cent) report getting less than eight hours of sleep on a school night, a significant increase of students since 2015.
“We have seen serious increases in screen time among students in recent years, as well as decreases in sleep,” said survey co-lead Dr. Tara Elton-Marshall, Independent Scientist, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. “There are real concerns about the implications of excessive amounts of time spent on social media especially during the current pandemic when Canadian youth are even more engaged with screens. It is important to consider ways to reduce recreational screen time and engage in alternate activities to boost well-being.”
The 2019 report also indicated some positive trends in youth behaviour. The self-reported rate of being bullied at school has fallen from 33 per cent to 23 per cent since 2003. In addition, the number of students reporting texting while driving has gone down from 36 per cent to 29 per cent in the past six years. Finally, the number of students reporting gambling activity of any kind has decreased significantly from 57 per cent to 31 per cent since 2003.
SOURCE Centre for Addiction and Mental Health