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Plugged In: Canadian Adolescents’ use of e-Mental Health Tools

Posted on August 18, 2020 by Nancy Gupta

Growing up is hard to do, especially online. Adolescence has always brought challenges, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added substantial stress to the lives of youth and young adults across Canada. Physical distancing, uncertainty around schooling and employment and concerns around the virus itself have contributed to rising mental health concerns among young Canadians.

According to Statistics Canada, adults in all age groups were less likely to report “excellent” or “very good” mental health at the beginning of the pandemic. However, this difference was particularly pronounced in younger cohorts. While 62 per cent of Canadians ages 15-24 reported “excellent/very good” mental health in 2018, only 42 per cent could say the same in early 2020. That’s the largest drop across any age group surveyed.

What’s more, youth are more likely to report worsening mental health since the onset of physical distancing. Statistics Canada also found that among 15-24-year-olds, 64 per cent reported a decline in their mental health, compared to only 35 per cent of those age 65 and older. This youngest cohort also reports the most anxiety, with nearly one-third experiencing “moderate to severe” levels. Frighteningly, suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among people aged 15-24, making it the second leading cause of death in this age group.

While awareness around the importance of mental health is improving, increased demand and limited resources continue to pose challenges. Long wait times, cost and access barriers can all delay youth getting care. What’s more, physical distancing means that many of young Canadians’ usual supports — friends, family and mental health services provided through schools — may be unavailable or limited.

So where can youth turn for help? This tech-savvy cohort often goes virtual. The 2019 Annual Tracking survey conducted by Canada Health Infoway (Infoway) shows that adolescents the most likely to use virtual care platforms for health care visits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, e-mental health tools are currently (one of) the most-used digital health service(s) among adolescents, with 53 per cent using them in the last year.

Of course, access is one part of the story. Satisfaction and ease-of-use are also important aspects of digital health tools’ effectiveness. Our data shows that 56 per cent of adolescents reported overall satisfaction with digital health tools, and just over half found them easy to use.

However, only 40 per cent agreed that their mental health improved due to their use of a particular app or website. What’s more, nearly one-third disagreed.

Looking at the data, it’s clear that there is considerable need and interest among youth around e-mental health tools. However, there is also a need for further research and development into the digital health strategies that can support them best. As with all types of mental health care, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Together with our partners — and alongside Canada’s young people — we can keep working to make a difference.

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Nancy GuptaNancy Gupta is a Performance Analyst with Canada Health Infoway where she supports data driven decision making and evaluates the impact of digital health investments. She holds a Master’s in Public Health-Specialization in Epidemiology from Lakehead University.

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