The impact of ‘social malnutrition’ on students’ mental health and how to address it

Some young learners are struggling to build early reading skills, while others stumble over math concepts. Repeated pandemic pivots have left students out of practice with classroom learning, impacted their mental health and distanced them from peers. The CBC News series Learning Curve explores the ramifications of COVID-19 for Canadian students and what they’ll need to recover from pandemic-disrupted schooling.


For more than two years, Rachel MacFadyen had become used to seeing her classmates wearing masks and hand sanitizer dispensers placed around her school, an atmosphere she says didn’t exactly encourage socializing.

As a result of measures put in place to lower transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel says she doesn’t have as close a connection with her classmates as she used to.

“I just miss being able to just be with people and not feel like I have to be cautious,” the Grade 9 student told CBC News. “I miss feeling more free.”

Rachel, 14, who lives in Cornwall, P.E.I., says school has become extra stressful since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Rachel MacFadyen, 14, of Cornwall, P.E.I., is finishing Grade 9. As a result of measures put in place to lower transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel says she doesn’t have as close a connection with her classmates as she used to. (Submitted by Jamie Cole)

“I always feel a little bit more stressed because I didn’t want to do anything wrong. Or like I didn’t want to make someone uncomfortable if I went too close to them.”

Across the country, students have dealt with ongoing disruptions — from cancelled school clubs and events to changing cohorts and online learning. Both health-care professionals and students have noticed the impact a lack of socialization has had on mental health. Here’s what they have to say about how to mitigate those effects.

Students dealing with ‘social malnutrition’

Dr. Saba Merchant, a pediatrician with a practice in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, has used the phrase “social malnutrition” to describe the effect that isolation has had on children and youth during the pandemic. She says some parents she works with have yet to send their children back to in-class learning, which she finds concerning.

WATCH | Tips on recognizing, talking about mental health changes with kids: 

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Dr. Saba Merchant and Psychologist Cassandra White share advice on how parents can recognize and respond to mental health challenges in their kids

“At home when parents are having conversations, if they fear COVID, then they are transmitting that fear to their child, and their child is going to be afraid, too,” she said.

Merchant says she’s less worried about the social and emotional development of younger children. “With the three-to-seven-year-olds, there’s certainly more resilience,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunity for catch-up.”

For older students, it’s another story.

  • Do you have a question about how kids are recovering from pandemic-disrupted learning? Do you have an experience you want to share, or some ideas that could help get kids back on track at school? Send an email to ask@cbc.ca.

Merchant says she’s seeing mental health issues in teenagers at higher levels than ever before in her 20 years of practice, and she thinks this age group may have a harder time bouncing back than younger children.

“The resilience that we see in the younger age group, I’m not sure there’s that much resilience in the teen group,” she said. “I think that that would be a longer-term thing that we’re going to deal with.”

Merchant points to warning signs that parents or guardians should be aware of, including a change in behaviour, mood swings, trouble sleeping and quick weight gains or losses. “Know those windows where your teenager is more receptive to conversations, because that is going to be very important.”

Dr. Saba Merchant, a pediatrician with a practice in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, has used the phrase ‘social malnutrition’ to describe the effect that isolation has had on children and youth during the pandemic. Young children, she says, are more resilient than teenagers. (Dean Gariepy/CBC)

Students noticed the impact early on

Grade 10 student Peyton Kehler of Steinbach, Man., was able to stay in touch with friends remotely, playing games online such as Pictionary and Among Us, but she says she still noticed the impact of not having face-to-face interaction.

“I didn’t realize how much I benefited off the social aspect until it was taken away,” she said. “I noticed my overall energy level was lower. I found less motivation, and just getting up to do your online math homework, it was … different.”

Peyton, 16, says there was a real sense of solidarity among her peers, who were all going through the same thing together — but apart — which left room for small gestures to make a big impact.

“Friends going out of their way to maybe just bike over to your house to say ‘hi’ to you was the highlight of the week,” she said.

Peyton Kehler, 16, of Steinbach, Man., was able to stay in touch with friends remotely, playing games online such as Pictionary and Among Us, but she says she still noticed the impact of not having face-to-face interaction. (Submitted By Peyton Kehler)

Katie Yu was finishing Grade 8 when the pandemic first hit.

“Isolation and interruption, disruption in middle school and social life, I think obviously that had a big impact on our mental health,” the 16-year-old said.

Yu, who lives in Iqaluit, says she thinks it’s important that young people are listened to when they voice concerns about their mental health.

“[I hope] youth are kind of included in decisions that are made — or at least, you know, informed adequately.” 

Tips parents, students should keep in mind

If a teen is going through a challenge, Merchant says it’s important to “work with them and empathize with them before working it out.”

Cassandra White is the director of Rocky Mountain Psychological Services in Calgary. (Submitted by Cassandra White)

That advice is echoed by Cassandra White, director of Rocky Mountain Psychological Services in Calgary. She says it’s important to validate children and youth when they open up about mental health.

“It’s important that you take it seriously and treat it that way. Don’t just sort of say, ‘Well, it’s not a big deal. You should see what I have to deal with,'” she said.

Like Merchant, White also noticed a change in her practice with the onset of the pandemic. At first, she says, she saw an increase in anxiety from both kids and parents.

Cases were more frequent and often required several visits. “We’ve had kids where we have worked with the parents and the child and the school over a period of six weeks to have them be able to remain in a classroom,” White said. 

Full understanding will take time, data

Tracy Vaillancourt, who holds the Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention and is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education, says tools aren’t currently available to properly understand how the pandemic has affected the mental health of students.

“Really, what it needs is very large data sets that involve kids across all provinces and territories and that are longitudinal in nature. The problem is we don’t have this in Canada,” she said.

Vaillancourt points to one large national study that was granted funding during the pandemic, but the results aren’t yet ready.

From smaller studies Vaillancourt has been able to look at, she says the mental health impacts have been nuanced but that on average “there was a decline in mental health.”

She says there were more symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as more eating disorders, than she’s ever seen before, but notes that some subgroups, such as kids with social anxiety disorder, did quite well during the pandemic.

WATCH | Students discuss the social impacts of the pandemic: 

“I haven’t had the relationship I used to have with kids in my class”

Students from across Canada discuss the social impacts of the pandemic

Vaillancourt says she worries that public discourse on pandemic-related mental health stressors on children has become “politicized and polarized.”

The climate is one in which talking about the mental health impacts of virus mitigation measures is viewed by some as akin to dismissing virus mitigation in general, she says.

“People are really entrenched right now in their viewpoint, and I need them to not be so entrenched.”

Gathering again

Back in Manitoba, student Peyton Kehler says there was an adjustment period that came with being able to meet in person again.

“There was a different dynamic in the way we first gathered. It was like, you kind of kept your distance. You kind of were careful on what you talked about, what subjects were OK to talk about,” she said.

Even with that weird dynamic, there were highs as well, like finally meeting people she had only seen online. “It’s a whole other experience, no doubt. Yeah, it is very cool,” Peyton said.

“Walking into a room and just seeing 100 and 150 faces and seeing smiles, it’s incredible. I definitely missed that.”


COVID-19 has affected the past three school years. How have your students fared amid pandemic schooling? What are you most worried about? Share your experiences and concerns with us at ask@cbc.ca (Be sure to include your name and location. They may be featured on air on CBC News Network.)

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