TORONTO -- Like so many segments of society, the mental health of young people has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry last October found almost 40 per cent of youth met the screening criteria for illnesses such as anxiety, depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and among young people, who were already dealing with mental health problems, the number was even greater, just over 68 per cent.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Joanna Henderson is the executive director of Ontario Youth Wellness Hubs. They provided free mental health support program even before the pandemic and last spring began the switch to online services but found it wasn’t easy.

Some youth were concerned about confidentiality or about having to talk about their problems from home, where they may not have felt safe to speak openly. Others may have had difficulty just getting the computer equipment or internet services.

Aaron Sanqui says one of the main concerns he heard from youth clients of the North Simcoe Youth Wellness Hub was that they didn’t know what to do at the start of the pandemic.

“Youth and students were just sitting at home trying to figure out what to do,” said the 22-year old youth ambassador. “They couldn’t go out and socialize like they’d normally do.”

Henderson says teenage years have a unique importance in a person’s development.

“You’re working on things like autonomy, you’re moving outside of your home and family to connect with more peers. You may be getting your first job and getting that first taste of financial independence.” She said the restrictions associated with the pandemic have a deep impact on that.

She said the hubs planned for the change to virtual services with input from health experts, community partners and especially from the young people themselves.

An emphasis was placed on using social media to build up communications between peer counsellors and clients. At the North Simcoe location, the “Red Couch Podcast” offers tips on coping mechanisms from youth with lived experience as well as healthcare professionals.

A popular cooking group has also developed. Instructors send out food baskets with all the ingredients and then demonstrate how to cook them from the kitchen of a local food bank.

The emphasis is on creating healthy food and the teens create a meal for their whole family. It teaches them a practical skill, offers them fun and camaraderie and addresses food insecurity, which clients may also be facing.

Other free programs developed in response to the pandemic include virtual drop-ins, employment coaching and “Feel Good Fridays.”

“We always hear about how this pandemic is really taking a toll on people’s mental health and youth especially,” Sanqui said. “We want to make sure that they’re well-supported during this time.”