Alarming number of preteens and teens are suffering from mental health issues

The Montreal Children’s Hospital outlines warning signs of distress;
provides parents with advice on finding help for their child

Montreal : The Montreal Children’s Hospital (the Children’s) is concerned about the unprecedented number of adolescents struggling with mental health challenges due to the pandemic, school closures, online learning, increased screen time, no sports or extracurricular activities and lack of socialization. The statistics are worrisome: the number of Quebecers aged 12 to 17 admitted to hospitals for mental health reasons following an emergency room visit increased 40% in January and February over the same period last year. Unfortunately, this situation is playing out across Canada and North America.

“The number of young people in distress is alarming. At the Children’s we are treating preteens and teens with suicidal thoughts, depression, intentional ingestion of medication, acute anxiety, and severe eating disorders,” says Dr. Martin Gignac, the Children’s Medical Director of Psychiatry. “When large numbers of young people turn to the hospital for help, a greater number is likely suffering in silence. Parents and caregivers need to know the warning signs of distress and how to find help for their child.” 

We are seeing an increased number of children and adolescents who are presenting to the emergency department with mental health,” says Dr. Laurie Plotnick, the Children’s Emergency Department Director. The rise of these issues being experienced in children and adolescents is very concerning and is occurring across North America. We ask that families remain vigilant to changes in their children and, if they have any concerns, seek professional help as early as possible.

Dr. Catherine Serra Poirier, a Children’s psychologist acknowledges that adolescence is a turbulent time and some parents may have difficulty differentiating normal teenage behaviour from distress. Her advice: parents should seek help if their child’s behaviour is new; persists for a few weeks or longer; causes distress to the child or family; or interferes with the child’s day-to-day life.

Warning signs of distress:

  • Mood changes (sadness or irritability),
  • Sleep/appetite changes,
  • Lack of interest/pleasure in usual activities,
  • Decreased school performance,
  • Isolation (staying in room day and night),
  • Self-depreciative comments (I’m worthless),
  • Talking about death as a solution.

Be especially vigilant if preteens or teens are:

  • Living through a stressful event (break up, didn’t get into preferred CEGEP)
  • Self-harming (cutting, burning)
  • Abusing substances (drugs, medications, alcohol)
  • Impulsive

And if there is a family history of psychiatric disorders.

“Teens in acute distress likely don’t know what to do or where to find help,” says Dr. Serre Poirier. “Parents are usually best placed to get them help. To start, the best option is to access any of the various community services.” 

Services available in the community:

  • Make an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist
  • If your child’s behaviour is unsafe or your child talks about wanting to hurt themselves or someone else, go the nearest emergency room.

A new model of care

“Over the past few months, our eight-patient psychiatric unit has been over capacity with up to 12-14 teens in crisis per day,” says Dr. Gignac. “Some teens with mental health issues, who require 24-hour supervision, are admitted to surgical or medical units. This is far from the ideal setting to help these young people.

Rather than a hospital stay, Dr. Gignac favours developing crisis intervention centres in the community where teens would have quick access to mental health workers and families could take part in intensive psychotherapy.


To interview Dr. Martin Gignac, Dr, Plotnick and/or Dr. Catherine Serra Poirier, please contact:

Sandra Sciangula

[email protected]