Youth self-harm higher than expected during COVID-19 pandemic: study

Pediatric hospital visits for self-harm saw a “large” increase during the first years of COVID-19 in Canada, new research states.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) Monday showed higher-than-expected rates of emergency department visits and hospital admissions for self-harm among children and adolescents between March 2020 and June 2022.

There was a marked increase in acute care visits for self-harm particularly among younger girls aged 10 to 13 years. The research included nearly 1.3 million youth aged 10 to 17 years in Ontario.

Pandemic-related measures and lockdowns that forced school closures likely played a role, along with other contributing factors, according to the study authors.

“Findings may reflect the prolonged and cumulative effects of pandemic-related stressors on this younger age group such as social isolation, loss of routines, missed milestones, changing learning environments, familial stress, inadequately treated psychiatric conditions, substance misuse or changing patterns of mental health service use at a critical point in their developmental trajectory,” the authors wrote.

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Limited access to care as hospitals grappled with staffing shortages also likely had an impact on youth’s mental health, they added.

“The unabated demand for acute mental health services for self-harm among youth suggests lasting effects of the pandemic and continued undertreatment of mental distress in this population, despite the widespread lifting of pandemic restrictions,” the researchers from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), ICES, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto said.

There is growing research and concern about the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, particularly among the younger population.

A Statistics Canada report from May showed that the prevalence of suicidal thoughts in 2021 was highest among young adults aged 18 to 24 years compared with any other age group.

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Suicide attempts among Canadian youth also soared in the early years of the pandemic.

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The federal government, under the previous 2021 budget, has allocated $45 million over two years to develop national mental health service standards in collaboration with the provinces and territories.

As part of that effort, former mental health minister Carolyn Bennett announced in February the investment of nearly $5 million in 25 research projects for mental health and substance use services for children, youth and young adults.

The CMAJ study authors stressed the need for better access to mental health support services for children and adolescents in the country.

They also said more research is needed to understand the reasons for the uptick in self-harm among Canadian youth.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.

Kids Help Phone operates a toll-free helpline at 1-800-668-6868 with 24-7 support for young people as well as the Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting HOME to 686868.

The toll-free Hope for Wellness helpline provides 24-7 support for Indigenous Peoples at 1-855-242-3310. Online chat services are also available.

Trans Lifeline operates a toll-free peer support hotline for trans and questioning people at 1-877-330-6366.

For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention at

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