This policy brief seeks to provide guidance to decision makers, systems planners, and policy makers about ways to support infants, young children, and their families in light of the mental health needs emerging from or being worsened by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It does so through an examination of the following research questions:
- What are the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on new and expectant parents, infants, young children, and their families in Canada? In what ways do these impacts change across different population groups?
- What are the risk and protective factors associated with resilience and positive mental health for new and expectant parents, infants, young children, and their families in the context of COVID-19?
- What measures are being adopted in Canada to respond to the mental health needs of new and expectant parents, infants, young children, and their families? What measures ought to be amplified or changed?
Using a population mental health approach, the brief provides recommendations from a promotion and prevention lens that includes a strong focus on health equity and the social determinants of health. Since the full range of child-protection policies is beyond the current scope, issues of child maltreatment are mainly considered from a prevention perspective. In recognition of the increasing diversity of families in Canada, a parent will be taken to mean “anyone who is a primary caregiver for children, whether in a biological or other kind of relationship” (p. 5).
We conducted a rapid scan of the academic and grey literature between July and November 2020, drawing on findings from a previous Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) COVID-19 response scan (April 2020) 4 and scoping work conducted by the MHCC’s Early Childhood Mental Health team. A first draft of our findings was circulated for comment to members of the MHCC’s expert advisory group on early childhood mental health, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, the Canadian Paediatric Society’s task forces on early years and on child and youth mental health, the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s executive and advocacy committees, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. The MHCC considered all such input in developing this policy brief.
- Successfully bolstering early childhood mental health and resilience is fundamentally about adequately funding and resourcing people, with attention to human resources and retention. Areas of strategic investment include expanding universally available, high-quality, and culturally safe mental health and substance use services, as well as early childhood education (ECE) for diverse parent groups, infants, young children, and extended families.
- While there are many risk factors at play, there are reasons to be optimistic: increased social, emotional, and financial supports can strengthen resilience. Providing communities, families, parents, and children with needed supports at the appropriate level of intensity can help to alleviate the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Such supports may also empower families and help to prevent understandable grief and suffering from becoming pathologized.
- Parenting stress can be reduced through rapid, strategic investments that can help prevent adverse outcomes for child development, mental health, and families. Areas of investment include flexible employment benefits, universal child care, peer-support programs, mental health first aid (MHFA), and digital early literacy interventions. An added emphasis is warranted on adaptation to rural and remote communities and on expansion of home visiting, perinatal interventions, and family-systems interventions.
- Health equity, sex- and gender-based analysis (SGBA+), and intersectionality should guide areas of strategic investments and improvements in infrastructure. Parents with young children have been particularly stressed by school closures during the pandemic, with a disproportionate impact on women. The pandemic is also compounding stressors for children, parents, families, and communities that experienced a greater social disadvantage prior to the pandemic, including racialized, Indigenous, single parent, low-income populations and those living with mental illness or developmental needs.*