Recent statistics show that more than 214,000 children in this country have lost a parent to the COVID-19 pandemic, an event that “can seriously affect a child’s mental health”, said Jackie Baker, a licensed social worker and behavioral health therapist at UPMC Behavioral Health.
“Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts – and the rates have increased over the past decade,” said Baker.
Other statistics show that the rates of mental health problems and suicide among children increased steadily between 2010 and 2020. In 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24.
“The pandemic has intensified this crisis: across the country, we have seen a dramatic increase in emergency room visits for all mental health emergencies,” said Baker.
Before the pandemic, mental health problems were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes among young people, with up to 1 in 5 children aged 3 to 17 in this country suffering from a mental disorder, emotional, developmental or behavioral. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students, according to Baker.
“There was a lot going on, and it was a perfect storm of factors that will have ripple effects for years to come,” said Baker.
The pandemic has disrupted lives, adding to the pre-existing challenges that many young people faced.
Moreover, just like with adults, adolescents who were initially vulnerable have been most negatively affected by the pandemic. This includes youth with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, low income youth, rural youth, youth from immigrant households, youth involved in child welfare systems or juvenile justice and homeless youth, Baker said.
During this time of social distancing and isolation, many therapists have transitioned from in person to other modes of care, such as telehealth and telehealth, but many people are still struggling to get care, appointments -you being canceled or delayed.
Late last year, the United States Surgeon General, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Childhood Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued notices stating that there is a “The urgent need to address the national youth mental health crisis and the future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation,” said Baker.
“The pandemic has hit, imposing many social constraints on our adolescents and children, which has disrupted all aspects of their lives – at home, at school and in the community,” Baker added.
What should parents look for?
“Being mentally healthy in childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to deal with problems,” said Dr. Olufunke Oladejo, pediatrician at UPMC Pediatrics.
“Children who are mentally healthy have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, at school and in their community,” she says.
Children can have even strong fears and feel sad and hopeless from time to time, but Oladejo warned that “Although fears and worries are typical in children, persistent or extreme forms of fear and sadness can be due to anxiety or depression.”
Parents should be aware that depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, and many other mental health conditions present differently in children than in adults.
“A teen or adolescent with depression may overreact, have behavioral problems, be very irritable, while an adult may come across as just melancholy and sad,” she says.
For parents to distinguish what is normal for their child, they need to know what their child’s normal behavior is and what is not.
Some of the red flags parents should look out for, according to Oladejo, include increasing withdrawal from once pleasurable activities, changes in diet or appearance, difficulty with schoolwork, overreaction to mundane activities, and expression of fear or discomfort.
Knowing if your child has depression or anxiety and not just normal teenage mood swings isn’t always easy because kids often hide who they really are from their parents, Oladejo said.
“When bringing up the subject of mental health with children, it helps to have a non-judgmental attitude and avoid using words like ‘crazy’ or minimizing your child’s feelings by normalizing their behavior like a “part of the growth”. said Oladejo.
Parents should also remember that not all children want to talk to them about their feelings. Trying another form of communication, such as text or a letter, may be preferable to a face-to-face conversation.
“What matters is that a parent keeps trying,” she says.
Another aspect of a child’s healthy mental development to consider is the mental health of their parents or caregivers.
“Parents who have their own mental health issues, such as coping with symptoms of depression or anxiety (fear or worry), may struggle more than parents who describe their mental health as good. must have a realistic understanding of their own mental health before trying to help their children,” she explained.
Help is available
Several treatments are available for children and adolescents. School counselors can provide a safe space for children and teens to learn healthy coping skills and find emotional support.
Individual therapy is another treatment option, along with group therapy and family therapy to “engage the family unit as a whole to effectively support the child or adolescent”, said Baker.
A good place to start is with a health care provider, such as your child’s primary care provider.
“Healthcare providers are trained on what to look for when it comes to risky behavior as well as how to assess patients in a non-threatening way,” said Oladejo.
“Parents should speak with their child’s healthcare provider and share their concerns and also encourage their child to feel comfortable opening up to their provider. If there is a problem, the provider will begin the process of fully assessing what is going on and may also help connect the family to resources,” she says.
In the past, it was easier to admit to having a fatal illness than to seek treatment for any type of mental health problem. Unfortunately, some of that stigma still exists.
“Unfortunately, many people, adults and children still believe that they have to keep their problems locked away – even if it becomes debilitating or all-consuming,” said Baker.
“Stigma in today’s society causes feelings of shame and helplessness, but there are resources available and there is hope,” she added.
Baker offered some suggestions for overcoming stigma, such as talking openly about mental health, learning more about it, and teaching others.
“Be aware of the language you use. Mental illness is an illness, not something you can control. Show compassion and empathy – don’t be judgemental,” she says.
“Seek treatment and talk about it. Mental illness is not a phase or something that you will overcome if you try hard enough. If you suffer from a mental illness, you already carry a heavy burden. It is important to receive the support of those around you and your doctor,” said Baker.
“Don’t add to the stigma” she says.