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Children’s Mental Health Crisis; Is COVID-19 To Blame?

by Hannah Zwemer |  ❘ 

The Pandemic Is Impacting Children’s Mental Health

From mask-wearing to Zoom meetings to more Americans experiencing the #workfromhome life, the onset and continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the way we all live and experience our lives. However, while many adults have more or less smoothly transitioned to this new largely virtual lifestyle, children are having a much harder time adjusting. While health professionals and others in the industry have been seeing higher levels of mental health maladies in the nation’s youth, in the Fall of 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) declared an emergency in children’s mental health.

Nationwide, numbers have been surging as more and more children are showing signs of mental distress. In the first 9 months of 2021, 38 children’s hospitals across the United States saw more than 47,000 visits to the emergency department for mental health crises; 40% higher than the same period in 2020. In some instances, families seeking outpatient mental care were faced with a wait time of anywhere from 3 weeks to 9 months.

Schooling In A “Post”-COVID World

Before the pandemic even reached our shores, children’s mental health had been on the radar of concern. In 2019, 1 in every 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and 1 in 5 children aged 3-17 were diagnosed with a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. COVID-19 has done nothing but exacerbate these already alarming trends. Across the country, schools are seeing kids acting out, exhibiting behaviors typical of ages and grades much younger. Some schools have seen higher numbers in violence against authority as well as rises in self-harm as well as suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Dr. Tami Benton, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, attributes much of the behavioral issues and overall aggression to the return of regular schooling, explaining that the time away from the structure and “normalcy” of school has hindered a great deal of social and behavioral skills. Kids are missing out on those life experiences that help teach them both the importance of emotional regulation and how to do it. Even now that many districts have resumed in-person learning, “you’re sort of catching up on all of that under extraordinary circumstances,” Benton explains.

Challenges In Treating Children’s Mental Health

Due to the nature of the institution, in many cases, schools were “first responders” in terms of noticing children’s mental health and anything out of the ordinary or “neuro-diverse.” However, with the increased prevalence of virtual schooling, a lot of issues that might have been caught earlier are slipping through the cracks. Not to mention the fact that even when school was regularly conducted in person, many districts suffered from a lack of guidance counselors and other mental health personnel – a result of inadequate funding, certainly even worse in lower income areas.

Nationally, an estimated 175,000 children lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19 and because of already skewed systematic inequities, children of color are disproportionately affected. “There are some children who have lost generations of family members and then [must go] [to] school…and manage that stress without necessarily having a therapist available or a school counselor or nurse,” youth psychiatrist and chief medical officer of a telehealth company, Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite expresses. Mariana Souto-Manning, president of Erickson Institute (a child development-centered graduate school) explains also that there is also an issue with a lack of insurance in many cases and a shortage in bilingual providers that might better serve other language-speaking communities.

Working Toward Sustainability

In response to the numbers, the incidents, and the general morale of students, schools are benefiting from small amounts of national aid in the form of the CARES and American Rescue Acts. These funds provide school districts the resources to hire more counselors and social workers to help combat this children’s mental health crisis. Some schools have even reached out to various mental health professionals asking for ways in which their administrators can better support and care for the mental health of their students amidst this continuously challenging and confusing time. Some states, like Kentucky and Massachusetts, are toying with new bills that would grant students mental health days, built like sick days, into their school schedule. If passed, the bills would allow children time off to receive care or simply to regroup, prioritize self-care, and establish a stronger sense of interconnectedness with their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

The way in which we are living and continuously moving forward, while certainly an improvement, is still not necessarily sustainable and it is important to be aware of the ways we approach and interact with children. Souto-Manning says, “whether it’s online or in person is not as important as if the people who are educating and supporting their development and their families are well. So it’s really important for us during this time to attend to adult well-being in mental health, so that we’re not projecting onto children so that we are not causing issues and really exacerbating some of their anxieties.” Too often we seem to forget just how impressionable and perceptive young people are; monitoring our own mental health might be paramount in addressing children’s mental health, especially considering the height of the stakes.

In general, the world is still reeling from all the events of the past few years and it is reflected in the mental healthcare market. Across the board, from adolescents to adults, there is a need for care and support and a gaping lack when it comes to service providers.

Oversaturated Need For Mental Health Care

Speaking of the general population and the increased need for mental healthcare, co-medical director of psychiatry for Roper St. Francis, Dr. Sarah Coker explains the pressure that she and so many other mental health providers are experiencing:

I’ve talked to other psychiatrists in the community. They’re working on days off. They’re opening Saturday clinics just because there are so many people needing treatment for depression and anxiety. There’s no physical way to meet the demand of how many people need help right now. There are just not enough providers for the number of patients.

- Dr. Sarah Coker, Live 5 News, 2021

With no other alternative, those who are struggling with intense feelings of anxiety, depression, loss, grief, or guilt must continue to soldier on with or without treatment.

More and more, mental health and how to care for it has become normalized. More and more, it is paramount that we treat the minds of our nation’s youth with the same level (if not more) of care for their internal wellbeing.

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Speak With A Treatment Provider Today

Unnoticed and untreated, mental health disorders can lead to substance abuse and addiction. Sometimes, anything that quiets the thoughts and numbs the senses comes as a relief to the whirring inside. If you are noticing habits or behaviors in yourself or a child you love that are concerning, remember that you are not alone. There are treatment professionals that specialize in varying forms of therapy and inpatient and outpatient services. Call or chat with a treatment provider for free to discuss any questions about treatment options. Reach out today.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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