Over the past two and a half months, we have seen that the social challenges people face on a regular basis have not gone away because of COVID-19.
Physical distancing is difficult, and it is perhaps most difficult for young people. Youth have been stripped of their social connections, at a time when relationships are of utmost importance to their personal development, well-being, and sense of self. They are disconnected from their mentors, teachers, role-models and friends. Some are living in poverty without access to their education and peers because they don’t have a computer.
Overwhelmingly, experts working with youth have already seen troubling trends among young people: declining mental health, educational disparities, and increased substance use and misuse among the most vulnerable youth.
As communities across Canada begin to stabilize in their response to the pandemic, and as businesses in Ontario consider reopening and adapting their services, the social services sector is also planning for what comes next:
How do we support youth in the “post-peak” and recovery phases of COVID-19?
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
For months now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others. In the same way we worked together with our communities to support Syrian refugees, to recover after the 2018 tornadoes, and to rebuild after the 2019 floods, we are again working diligently to support the most vulnerable through this unparalleled event.
This week, our table met again to hear from community sector leaders who have been working with youth over the past three months, and who are planning for their successful reintegration into our community as we look to a new normal. Karen Kennedy of the Ottawa Child and Youth Initiative (OCYI), Brett Reynolds of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), Rachel Roth of YAK Youth Centre, Marisa Moher of youturn Youth Services and Susan Ingram of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa (BBBSO) all shared their learnings on how youth are coping, and how we need to support them over the coming months.
We again had support from municipal, provincial and federal elected officials, including Marie France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans, Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West—Nepean, and Laura Dudas, Ottawa City Councillor for Innes Ward and Deputy Mayor. These officials are avid listeners at the table, and will play a key role in bringing our sector’s challenges, successes and concerns to higher levels for policy consideration and change.
How are families and youth doing?
In the early days of the pandemic, youth-focused organizations were focused on the urgent needs of young people in our communities: do they have a safe place to stay, and do they have food to eat? To maintain their education and connectivity with others, the OCDSB delivered more than 11,000 chromebooks and 1,200 wifi hotspots to youth in Ottawa and beyond. OCDSB also engaged with Red Cross and the City of Ottawa’s Human Needs Task Force to visit the homes of students they couldn’t get in contact with, to verify their safety and assess their needs.
Now, three months in, we’re worried about the long-term effects of COVID-19. Many youth are craving in-person connections. They miss their friends. In houses with family conflicts, youth are feeling disconnected from trusted adults with whom they can share their frustrations.
To make sure we are in tune with what young people need and how their challenges are evolving, partners at the table shared how they are collecting information and data to target their approaches.
- OCDSB has sent out a thought exchange to 7,000 parents and students to gauge their experiences with home learning, mental health, family dynamics, and more
- YAK Youth Centre are tracking calls through their youth helpline to understand where young people are struggling, and how they can intervene in dangerous circumstances like suicide or family violence
- Youturn staff are tracking survey questions from their clients to assess mental health and wellbeing, substance use or relapse, relationships with parents, and feelings about education
What increased risks do we anticipate for youth over the long-term?
Safety and Stability
All the partners are incredibly worried about the safety of the young people they work with.
Not only are youth disconnected from the community resources they accessed before COVID-19, but that disconnect is mutual: now, trusted adults outside of the home no longer have ties to those youth who may be experiencing violence, substance use, educational setbacks, severe mental health challenges and more. Increased internet time at home means many at-risk youth face the threat of trafficking and unsafe online behaviour.
When we can’t be in contact with kids, we risk not being able to identify the opportunities to intervene and help them.
This means we are particularly attuned to finding ways we can reconnect with youth one-on-one.
Children in kindergarten and grade one are at a critical point in their lives where they are learning language, literacy and numeracy—skills that are foundational to the rest of their education. Parents who are working multiple jobs and don’t have as much time to engage with their children’s education will see a gap in their achievement once they return school that we as a sector need to be prepared to address.
For the rest of students, returning to the classroom is not clear cut, with OCDSB acknowledging that they must be prepared for a start to the school year in September that will look very different from years past. They are anticipating starting some youth in-person, and continuing some education remotely to fit the needs of students. Transportation to school will also look very different.
Critical hours programming like mentorship, after school programs, digital homework support and other resources are so important for young people to keep them connected and socially and educationally engaged through this period of transition.
Since the onset of COVID-19, 65 per cent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 reported that their mental health had worsened.
YAK Youth Centre pivoted their staff to run their youth helpline for extended hours during COVID-19. Since then, they have seen an increase in calls about suicide, requiring urgent responses from staff.
Youturn also noted that 90 per cent of their clients have had worsening mental health during the pandemic. Both YAK Youth Centre and youturn have seen an increase in substance and alcohol use among young people, an increase in family conflicts to address, and youth feeling disengaged from school.
All partners noted that in-person, one-on-one interactions with youth are much more impactful than digital connections. The sector is committed to finding ways of reconnecting with young people as the province loosens restrictions, in order to strengthen those bonds.
Evidence of collaboration
Partners spoke of the opportunity COVID-19 has presented in switching very quickly to digital program delivery. For the school boards, this has been an opportunity to strengthen the professional development of teachers and staff to better support young people through the pandemic and beyond.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa discussed the value of mentorship through this period of physical distancing: when youth have problems or stresses at home, being connected to a trusted adult can be helpful for learning, leadership and resilience.
New vulnerabilities have meant organizations have had to work together to fill gaps and form partnerships that will last long beyond the end of the pandemic.
The path ahead
As we address the challenges of this “post-peak” phase, we must continue to evaluate our efforts, and commit to the same quality of response, knowing these issues will persist for many months to come.
Young people need our unwavering attention and support. At a broad level, they are struggling more than other groups, and will require sustained help to return to a “new normal.”
Our mission is to work together, using our resources creatively and effectively to address the most pressing needs—now, and over the long term.
In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit unitedwayeo.ca/covid19.