students young people COVID-19 mental health RSV Quebec

Young people offer a wake-up call and distress signal in the midst of a pandemic

An open letter from Montreal doctors Samir Shaheen-Hussain and Joanne Liu on what kids are going through during COVID and the climate catastrophe.

This week, school-aged children returned to their classrooms across Quebec. We want a safe return to school for these students and all school personnel. Our hope is that SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission will be limited until our medical system can provide dignified healthcare for the entire population.

As pediatricians, we have devoted nearly all of our adult lives caring for the health and well-being of children, their families and their communities, including marginalized populations both locally and globally. Over the years, we have been struck by the marked absence of young people’s voices in the public and political spheres.

Pediatricians certainly have a privileged role to play in advocating for children. However, that does not necessarily mean that we have to speak on their behalf. Instead, we should encourage them to speak up and then amplify their voices.

School-aged youth do not have regular access to public forums, including most mainstream media, to share their worries and their hopes. We hardly involve young people in the process of political decisions, despite the fact that political decisions — including when and how to reopen schools, for example — have indirect and direct consequences on them.

Catherine Larochelle, childhood historian and professor at Université de Montréal, recently wrote about this in LaPresse+: “Children […] have perspectives on the world that are no longer so easily accessible to us.” She explains that, for some children, “their reflections are not yet hampered by the ‘normalized’ rationale of capitalism.”

It is not enough to sporadically hear these voices here and there. We have to seek out these voices and then actually listen to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, but can we at least use this crisis as a wake-up call to finally change antiquated ways of doing things?

Young Quebecers have already shared their distress about transmitting the virus to others (especially loved ones like grandparents). “Schools” and “the community” do not exist in hermetically sealed silos. If there is significant spread in the community, it will be reflected in schools; however, the reverse is equally true. Our ailing healthcare system, gutted over the years by devastating neoliberal cuts and harmful austerity measures, is currently on the brink of collapsing. The suffering caused by the pandemic — including for parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, babysitters, friends, neighbors, etc. — has had, and will continue to have, an impact on the well-being of young people.

A return to in-person learning at all costs is not a panacea for relieving the distress of young people. Brie Villeneuve, a student who is advocating for more rigorous measures to ensure a safe return to the classroom in Winnipeg, lucidly shared that “we are struggling with mental health issues because there is a global pandemic.” Indeed, in-person learning will not solve the mental health problems triggered by the pandemic, which itself will persist as long as we do not adopt a global approach to deal with it. The question arises, then: what are we doing to end this global pandemic?

To genuinely attempt to address this issue means acknowledging that many of the same factors that have led to this global pandemic contribute to deepening long-standing societal inequalities and injustices that ravage populations across the planet and the Earth itself, including exploitation through colonialism and capitalism. Indeed, the pandemic has been a blow to climate justice movements largely led by young people. Moreover, long before the pandemic, the mental health of young people across the planet was already affected by the climate catastrophe. 

A large study based on the participation of 10,000 young people (16-25 years old) across 10 countries, and published in 2021 by the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, provides important insights. It suggests that governments’ failures to act on the climate crisis in a coherent and urgent manner are experienced “as betrayal and abandonment, not just of the individual but of young people and future generations generally.” This distress is felt acutely in more impoverished countries, those in the Global South, and those which are more directly affected by climate change. The heartbreaking words of a teenager quoted in the study reflect the personal, collective, and ecological perspective shared by many: “I think it’s different for young people. For us, the destruction of the planet is personal.”

Students leading protests for their health and safety in light of recent surges of COVID-19 in the United States are teaching us important lessons. Catlyn Savado, a founding member of Chicago Public Schools Radical Youth Alliance (Chi-RADS), stated in an interview that “we don’t leave our humanity at the door of a school.” These young people bring a different way of imagining education, imbued with critical thinking, caring for others, solidarity and social justice. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want from our schools?

As adults, it’s time we paid attention to what these students are telling us instead of speaking for them. Students may be back in their classrooms, but, at the end of the day, we are the ones who still have lessons to learn. ■

Joanne Liu

Pediatric emergency physician, professor at McGill University’s School of Population & Global Health, and former International President of Médecins Sans Frontières

Samir Shaheen-Hussain 

Pediatric emergency physician, assistant professor at McGill University, and author of the award-winning book, Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism Against Indigenous Children in Canada