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Make children’s mental health a priority, NOTL doctor says
Dr. Robin Williams speaks to the Canadian Paediatric Society's annual conference in Vancouver. She received a lifetime achievement honour for her work in the children's health field. KIM STALLKNECHT

Dr. Robin Williams speaks out as she’s honoured for career in pediatrics

St. Davids physician Robin Williams, honoured by the Canadian Paediatric Society for her long career as a child health advocate, says much more needs to be done to protect children.

Kids’ mental health is a big part of that, Williams told The Lake Report, pointing to high rates of anxiety, isolation, depression and eating disorders — “like we have never seen.”

Williams received the Alan Ross Award, the pediatric society’s most prestigious honour, in a ceremony at the organization’s annual conference in Vancouver earlier this month.

But amid all the accolades, she has some deep concerns about the future both for children and society.

On the issue of mental health, she noted “the undeniable link to smartphone use and social media. Much policy work needs to be done to get guardrails in place to protect our kids.”

“Parents and governments have put lots in place regarding safety and physical protections while we have totally ignored the virtual world with respect to kids’ health and well-being,” Williams said.

“One could write a thesis on the connection between children’s mental health and the use of smartphones and social media,” she said.

It goes well beyond cyber bullying. “Its use has an impact on sleep, displaces other activities of childhood such as outdoor play and social connection, increases ADD and is addictive.”

Williams noted Jonathan Haidt’s bestselling book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” is an important resource.

It can help people understand how children have been affected, especially those under 13, “and look at options to put guardrails in place through policy and parental controls.”

“We are seeing school boards in Ontario and elsewhere through legal and policy efforts attempting to deal with it,” she added.

What she calls the “misinformation epidemic” and its politicization is another worry.

It has led to a “lack of trust in scientifically proven treatments, especially aimed at vaccines.”

There is bound to be a costly price paid as a result, she said.

“As rates of vaccination fall, we will see a resurgence of measles, meningitis, whooping cough.”

That will lead to serious illnesses and deaths, she said, adding it is a “huge concern.”

Diseases that she saw early in her career and had been eradicated could make a resurgence and “cause irreparable damage to people’s health.”

A shortage of pediatricians, nurses, social workers and other professionals, is also a problem.

The health system has an “exhausted workforce. We are at a tipping point where the solutions are no longer having everyone just do more.”

The country needs “new models of care,” Williams said.

Williams, who was Niagara’s chief medical officer of health for 16 years starting in 1995, also served as the province’s associate chief medical officer. She was honoured with the Order of Canada in 2014.

In its citation for Williams’ award, the Canadian Paediatric Society said “her lifelong interest in child development led to work with Dr. Fraser Mustard on a series of reports that contributed to establishing parental leave and Early Years Centres in Ontario.”

During the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, she participated in the scientific panel whose report and recommendations eventually led to establishing Public Health Ontario.

And “as a founding member of Ontario’s provincial pediatric coroners review committee, she was involved in reviewing unusual child deaths and developing recommendations to improve systems and safety for children for more than 20 years.”

She also was involved in advising the health ministry during the COVID pandemic.

Williams sees the society’s lifetime achievement award as kind of “an exclamation mark at the end of your career.”

“The opportunity to be celebrated with my family and pediatric friends in Vancouver was very special,” she said.

“It also gave me one final opportunity to speak publicly about the challenges of pediatric care in Canada today.”

While she has plenty of worries for the future, when she looks back on her long career, she said she feels “blessed and lucky” to have been able to work for the betterment of children’s lives.

“Kids crawl onto your lap and into our hearts and there is no more important or rewarding career,” Williams said.

“Kids are full of joy and fun and amazing potential,” she said.

“They really are our future.”

kevin@niagaranow.com

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