Prioritizing the mental well-being of our children

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By Ebony Johnson, Director of Local Initiatives, United Way of Greater Atlanta, Charles Releford, Executive Director, Odyssey Family Counseling Center

For individuals, families, and communities in Metro Atlanta, the impacts of COVID-19 have left us stressed, anxious, and struggling to cope. When we think about the impacts of COVID-19 on children and adolescents in our region, we also grapple with the heightened vulnerability this pandemic has placed on the mental well-being of our youngest population.

At the height of the pandemic, children experienced changes in their upbringing, social isolation from family and friends, and the postponement of meaningful activities: family vacations, sports and club activities, and other social activities. Kids were forced to adjust and reimagine the way they celebrated milestones – we saw proms and graduations go virtual; we’ve seen children and young adults share their frustrations with the world on social media. We have also witnessed how children have responded to racial and social injustices occurring in our country, while having to adhere to public health guidelines on social distancing.

In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation briefing, more than 25% of high school students reported worsening emotional and cognitive health due to the pandemic. More than 20% of parents with children aged 5 to 12 reported similar conditions for their children. Although there have been provisions to maintain or, in many cases, increase mental health services for children through telehealth services, there has been a significant decrease in access to mental health services, as many of these interventions were provided in school settings.

United Way of Greater Atlanta is a long-time champion of behavioral and mental health and school-based mental health services. Over the past 7 years, our investments have supported behavioral health providers, such as Odyssey Family Counseling Center, to render service in South Fulton communities and through school outreach in Fulton County schools. As part of Centraide’s Better Future strategy, Community-driven innovation, our investments helped create a space where organizations could modify their service delivery models to meet diverse community needs in real time – and this proved essential during the height of the pandemic. Charles Releford, Executive Director of Odyssey, reflects on his organization’s work during this time:

The delivery of mental health services has undergone a series of changes throughout COVID -19 and its variants. Agencies like ours have had to pivot quickly and get creative with service delivery. Initially, all services moved from the familiar face-to-face format to a much less familiar virtual format. It was off-putting to say the least, for both the supplier and the consumer. Overlay this dynamic with the behavior profile of a middle school kid with attention deficit disorder and you get a very different picture. We opted for a hybrid model using both approaches. The clinicians were very creative and showed extreme dedication.

At the national level, we are in the midst of the “great resignation” in all areas of activity. Many of our clinicians felt overwhelmed by the surge in demand and the related uncertainty of the world at large and left the profession. At Odyssey, we try to emphasize “self-care” for our clinicians and have even instituted an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for those who may need it. The advent of COVID may require us, as service providers, to continue to evolve to meet ever-increasing needs. The therapy session of one hour every two weeks can be completed. Shorter, more frequent sessions are more effective. We will continue to listen to our community, students and parents to provide the most comprehensive therapy and support services.

As we navigate a new world with COVID-19, we must collectively prioritize the mental well-being of our children. This comes with the recognition that we must also address the impacts of racism and discrimination as part of this prioritization. We must also center the mental well-being of parents and caregivers. Through United Way of Greater Atlanta Child Welfare Mission Fund and the United Fund for Racial Equity and Healingwe have an opportunity to fight racial inequality, invest in communities that need it most, and support organizations, like Odyssey Family Counseling Center, to use their voice to amplify community concerns, increase the point of access to behavioral and mental health services, such as early mental health screenings and interventions, expand resilience and wellness efforts and other strategies that create positive connections for youth. Together we can do more.

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