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COVID quadruples the number of mental health clients in Niagara Region, many children

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Pathstone Mental Health
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As students limp to the finish line of this school year, many are believed to be mentally beaten down by loneliness, lack of knowledge and problems trying to learn online, potentially in a home where there are siblings in the same fix. That is the result of a new study of 90,000 kids across the Niagara River in Ontario.

The study was prepared by the Niagara Region's children's mental health agency, Pathstone Mental Health. Niagara Region is an economic and social cross section, including cities like St. Catharines and Niagara Falls and rural areas like Wainfleet and parts of Fort Erie. Both public and Catholic school systems were shut down in the region, starting more than a year ago.

Bill Helmeczi, director of strategic initiatives, standards and practices for Pathstone, said he had around 4,000 clients going into the pandemic, with the rule of thumb being 1 in 5 are children. The long lockdown pushed the total up...way up.

"For Niagara, then that would be somewhere around 18,000, and last year we supported through early identification, prevention programs and more intensive support, more intensive treatment about 9,000," Helmeczi said, "a little over 5,000 of those were unique clients, kind of first-time clients."

Helmeczi said a high percentage of the children are ages 6-10.

"They don't have access to social media like teenagers do. They require more supports from parents or teachers or guardians. They would struggle trying to understand what all of this means. They would struggle with their parents' reactions to the pandemic," he said.

Besides those problems, Helmeczi said serious eating disorder problems are surfacing.

"It required us to pivot quickly to get training for staff so that we could manage that influx," he said. "We think that's largely due to a lot of the initial indicators being lost in a pandemic. So kids weren't being seen in schools. Kids weren't having different eyes on them."

The provincial government is concerned enough about the problems for kids that it put $31 million into child and youth mental health on Wednesday.

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Anyone in need of immediate mental health help can call the Pathstone Crisis Support Line at 1-800-263-4944, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That number can also be called to arrange a same-day video counseling session Monday-Friday.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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