WINDSOR, ONT. -- A high school student at Windsor Vincent Massey Secondary School has completed a survey of his peers, with an alarming number of respondents indicating their mental health has “worsened” during the pandemic.

Rishi Naidu, a Grade 11 student, initially posted the survey through social media and circulated within his peer group at school. But responses started pouring in from high-schoolers across Windsor-Essex and Chatham Kent.

“You’ve only got four years of high school. And going into high school, everyone’s saying man, these are going to be the best four years of your life,” Naidu says. “And now you’re missing out on all those things, and it’s taken its toll on people.”

Of the more than 400 responses, 93 per cent indicated their mental health has declined over the past year.

Two-thirds of respondents indicate the lack of in-person interactions and missing out on typical school events have been the hardest part of lockdown life.

“Now there’s no sports teams, no prom, no dances, all those things you actually look forward to in a school year, to make it worth going to school,” says Naidu. “We’re missing out on all of that.”

survey results

While not captured in his survey, mental health professionals report students have hit the “pandemic wall,” with an increase in suicidal thoughts among teens.

“If the youth is out there and they are experiencing a lot of isolation, loneliness and without those contacts, it’s important we reach out to youth, ask them openly and directly are you thinking about suicide and connect that youth to help,” says Jenny-Lee Almeida of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Almeida says students experiencing mental health issues or crises should talk to a trusted adult or a friend. Failing that, a call to Kids-Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) will connect them with a professional who can be there to listen or offer advice.

“Reach out, have these open conversations,” suggests Almedia. “You can be completely anonymous. There’s so much power in not experiencing things alone and you don’t have to.”

Both the public and catholic school boards indicate they’re aware of the uptick in mental health-related needs among high school students during the pandemic.

“Some of these are around anxiety or feelings of isolation and others are more serious,” says Melissa Ferrand, a superintendent of education at the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. “I think it’s important for students to recognize that it’s normal to feel a sense of loss or disappointment during these times.”

The boards have teams of staff available to students — but they also refer students to community partners in certain circumstances.

“We have a team of professionals consisting of child youth workers, regulated school mental health workers as well as teacher consultants that are supporting both our elementary and our secondary schools,” Ferrand says.

The effects of the pandemic can be felt anywhere from a feeling of isolation to technological issues — even a lack of proper sleep, according to Charysse Pawley, the mental health lead and supervisor of social work and attendance counselling services at the Greater Essex County District School Board.

Pawley points to a handful of supports available on the public board’s website, such as the regional children’s centre through Hotel Dieu Grace Healthcare, online seminars and access to Maryvale, all of which can help students and parents cope with mental health-related needs.

“It really is important that we wrap around them and try to figure out how can we support them in coming back to school,” Pawley says.

As for the survey, Rishi Naidu wants to keep digging for reasons behind the mental health decline among his fellow students. He plans to present the data to both school boards and would also like to follow up six months down the road to track any changes in student behaviour.

The full survey is available here.