COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured Youth mental health

COVID-19: Youth mental health and addiction

A woman holds her head in her hands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone trying to navigate a new way of life.

There are greater levels of stress and anxiety, and for teenagers and young people dealing with mental health and addiction issues, the pandemic may be amplifying and exacerbating the challenges they were already experiencing.

Impact on mental health and addiction resources

This is a time like no other. Youth who haven’t necessarily struggled before and who may not have developed a mental illness, may still be affected by the changes happening around them. Individuals already dealing with mental health concerns, and who have a tendency towards depression and anxiety, could get see these emotions escalate.

There has been an increase in virtual care as a result of physical distancing measures, and some mental health resources that were accessible pre-COVID-19 may have been suspended or put on hold indefinitely. It can be frustrating, upsetting and unsettling to not have access to resources as usual.

Experts with the Family Navigation Project (FNP) at Sunnybrook have been helping families navigate the health care system during this crisis, and although online and telephone supports in the community are different from in-person services, it’s important to note that virtual interactions in some circumstances may provide convenience and an opportunity to get help.

If you or someone you know is in severe emotional distress, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

Addiction issues during COVID-19:

Physical distancing and stay-at-home orders don’t necessarily mean that alcohol and drugs aren’t readily available. In some communities and situations access to substances may have increased.

Increased access to substances

With youth spending more time at home, there is the possibility that alcohol in the family home is being accessed, along with old or current prescription medications. In these cases, remove visible reminders of addiction, if possible. Substances may also be accessed online or from suppliers who do not respect physical distancing.

Increased use of alcohol and drugs

There are many factors contributing to the elevated levels of stress and anxiety: the lack of daily structure, no school, job loss, boredom and feelings of isolation, and can lead to a potential increase in substance abuse. Using substances as a way to cope with stress, which is typically problematic or dangerous, has the potential to lead to dependency or misuse.

Potential impact on immune system

Did you know excessive use of these substances can weaken the immune system and put a person at higher risk of infection? Alcohol and drugs impact different parts of the body in different ways. Sometimes they can lead to a person ignoring health needs such as food and water. These factors can all suppress the immune system and put an individual at a heightened risk of illness.

Withdrawal

In some circumstances accessibility to substances may be reduced and an individual who is addicted may go through withdrawal from a substance. Withdrawal can lead to behavioural changes, such as mood swings, and/or physical symptoms such as seizures that can potentially be dangerous. If you have concerns about any withdrawal symptoms contact your healthcare provider or in an emergency call 911.

Warning signs

Here are some examples of warning signs that families can watch out for in their youth that may signify a greater concern and need for action:

  • Sleep: Are youth sleeping more or less? Both could be a sign of elevated levels of depression or anxiety.
  • Withdrawal from activities: Is your child not engaging in activities that once brought them joy? Are they withdrawing from family activities?
  • Self-harming behaviours: cutting, scratching or biting the skin, hair pulling, overdosing

Strategies for families

For families and youth already using mental health resources and strategies before COVID-19, it is important to remember they still have those tools available. It is a matter of adapting those strategies to this present situation.

Here are some ways to work together and how to find help:

  • Communication and validation: Acknowledge that this is a difficult time for everyone and that the additional stress could be exacerbating pre-existing mental health conditions. Be open to discussion about what your family is experiencing and how to deal with it together.
  • Reach out to trusted family members and friends: They can help support you through this time and potentially help find resources and information.
  • If you need help, get help: Emergency services and crisis lines are still available. FNP is also available for families that live in the Greater Toronto Area who have youth between the ages of 13 to 26 and can help families find the resources they need. Most mental health walk-in clinics are available virtually.

It is understandable for individuals and families to feel alone in these changing times. Many families are trying to navigate the same challenges and barriers.

As the saying goes, “We are all in the same storm, but not necessarily in the same boat.” We are all reacting to this pandemic in unique and different ways, but we share the stress. The bottom line is – we will all get through this together.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenging time for everyone. The Family Navigation Project is still here to help.

For more resources and information about COVID-19 from Sunnybrook experts read our blog.


If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or in severe emotional distress, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you feel like you are in crisis or need somebody to talk to, community resources are here to help.

Crisis Services Canada

  • 1-833-456-4566 (24 hours, 7 days a week toll-free)
  • Text: 45645 (4 p.m. – midnight ET)

Kids Help Phone

  • 1 800 668 6868 (voice)
  • Text: 686868 (24 hours, 7 days a week)

ConnexOntario: Addiction, Mental Health, and Problem Gambling Treatment Services in Ontario

  • 1-866-531-2600 (24 hours, 7 days a week)

Mental Health T.O. Virtual Mental Health Counselling

  • 1-866-585-6486 (Monday – Friday 9:00am – 7:00pm ET)

Toronto Distress Centre

  • 416-408-HELP (4357), (24 hours, 7 days a week)
Visit Sunnybrook's Department of Psychiatry for more mental health resources

About the author

Dr. Anthony Levitt

Dr. Anthony Levitt

Dr. Anthony Levitt is the Chief of Sunnybrook's Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program and the Medical Director of the Family Navigation Project.