An increase in mental health issues in children has been reported across Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the best resources for local families during this time is PLEO – Parents’ Lifeline, which has been helping parents and children in Eastern Ontario for the past 20 years.
The organization, which runs a parents’ helpline via telephone from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, provides family peer support through integrated services designed to support parents, when, where and how they need it. Like many agencies across the country, PLEO has been at times overwhelmed by the demand for services since the pandemic began.
“It was eerily quiet right at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Elyse Schipper, Executive Director of PLEO. “I think people were very focused on the basics – making sure they had food and could stay physically safe.”
As the pandemic continued, staff at PLEO started to see an increase in calls, and even more notably, a marked jump in the complexity of cases, Schipper said.
“Families used to call us where their child was thinking about suicide – now it’s actual attempts.”
Under normal circumstances, family peer supporters will inquire with callers about the support systems they have in place, asking questions about employment stability, food supply and whether they have family members who can help.
“Because of the pandemic, so many of those other factors have been affected that the mental health challenges are exacerbated too,” said PLEO’s executive director. “All of the support that families may have had in place before are not available now, or hard to get, or there is food or housing instability that’s added to the pressure.”
“So much of a child’s well being rests on their parents capacity to support them and everybody is so stressed it’s hard for parents right now to have the resilience to do what they need to do for their kids.”
PLEO provides parental peer support in a number of ways, based on the needs of the family. In addition to the parents’ helpline, the organization offers support group meetings and mobile one-on-one support. All of the staff members are parents who have themselves gone through the same experiences as many of the parents they support.
“All of our staff are parents who themselves have or are supporting their children through mental health care challenges,” Schipper notes. “Many parents tell us ‘this is the first place I’ve called where I feel heard and understood and not judged’ – that’s because they are talking to other parents who’ve been through it themselves.”
By working in partnership with other mental health associations in the region and with hospitals – including the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario – PLEO can help parents navigate through the system and help connect them to all of the different resources available.
“There are a lot of resources available through community centres and places you might not find listed in the data base of health services, but can be so helpful to families,” Schipper explained.
One of the largest increases in mental health issues among children during the pandemic has been in eating disorders. As with many agencies across Canada, PLEO has seen a huge spike in eating disorders among teenagers and even younger children over the past year.
“Eating disorders are unexpected, fascinating and also terrifying,” Schipper said, noting agencies are struggling to catch up on the issue. “There is so little capacity in the system for (eating disorders) to start with that we are absolutely overwhelmed with them right now.”
All of the services provided by PLEO – Parents Lifeline are free of charge. Anyone wishing to contact PLEO can do so by visiting the agency’s website at www.pleo.on.ca, or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/PLEOParentsLifeline/.
PLEO Parents’ Helpline can be reached by phoning 613-321-3211, or 855-775-7005.