Children are resilient but they have been affected by the loneliness and isolation from the pandemic, here we dive into how the pandemic affects the mental health of kids.
When it comes to how the pandemic has impacted the mental and behavioral health of students Jamie Freeny, DrPH, MPH, Director of the Center for School Behavioral Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, says it certainly has taken a toll.
“Parents and educators are seeing more suicidal ideation, grief, cyberbullying, increased agitation and conflict with parents and siblings, and over-indulgence in unhealthy behaviors,” Dr. Freeny said on Tuesday.
The Center for School Behavioral Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston works with school districts, public and nonprofit child-serving organizations, institutions of higher learning, and community stakeholders to develop and implement equitable projects and policies that promote the well-being of school-age children.
Freeny says mental health providers are seeing increases in diagnoses such as anxiety-based behavior, adjustment disorder, hyperactivity. separation anxiety, behavioral issues (tantrums, acting out), disrupted sleep patterns, suicidal ideation, and compounding trauma.
A study from Mental Health America online screened over 1.5 million Americans during the pandemic from March to September 2020, 38% of whom were aged 11-17. The study found that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, youth of this age were more likely than any other age to have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The study states that from March to September 2020, over 80 percent of 11-17-year-olds who took an anxiety screen scored for moderate to severe anxiety. Also, youth between ages 11-17 report the highest rates of suicidal ideation of any age group screened.
Just last week the City of Austin announced that 9-1-1 response scripts will now include mental health help. According to a memo by Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, if a person calls 9-1-1, mental health help will be the fourth option starting this month.
The new greeting is “Austin 9-1-1, do you need Police, Fire, EMS, or Mental Health Services?” The caller stating they require mental health services initiates an immediate transfer to an on-site mental health clinician or, if a clinician is unavailable, an immediate dispatch of a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer, the memo states.
The memo explains City Council approved funding for the City Manager to fully implement the mental health program and the first phase of the program started February 1. The mental health program was recommended by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas, who says they have not identified any other department in the country including mental health crises as a 9-1-1 triage option, which makes Austin uniquely innovative.
How can a stressful environment spurred from the pandemic affect kids and what can help?
Dr. Freeny explained that a child’s brain is developing from the time they are born through adolescence.
“Stress in an environment can impair the development of the brain and nervous system,” she said.
“For healthy brain development, it is important for a child to be nurtured, have responsive care, and have positive socialization among peers and other adults. The pandemic has disrupted social engagement opportunities and restricted bonding with friends and loved ones to virtual platforms.”
Freeny says positive or negative experiences can add up to shape a child’s development and can have lifelong effects. “An absence of mental stimulation (that often comes from school) in stressful environments (may be increased stress at home due to impacts from the pandemic e.g. loss of income, having parents as essential workers, having parents that abuse substances or that have a mental illness, etc.) may limit the brain from developing to its full potential.”
For parents, Dr. Freeny offers some tips that may help if you are seeing changes in your child’s behavior.
- Stay calm, listen, and offer reassurance.
- Be a role model. Children will react to and follow your reactions. They learn from your example.
- Be aware of how you talk about covid-19. Remind your child that your family is healthy, and you are going to do everything within your power to keep loved ones safe and well.
- Demonstrate deep breathing. Do breathing exercises with your children.
- Establish and maintain a daily routine.
- Offer lots of love and affection.
- Monitor television viewing and social media.
- Take time to talk – let your children’s questions guide you. Answer their questions honestly and accurately.
- Stay connected to school – locate learning resources.
- Improve mental health as a family – focus on the positive. Engage your child in games or other exciting activities. Attend virtual religious services together. Do family projects like crafts, redecorating, organizing, and cooking. Make it as fun as possible. Sing, laugh, and go outside, if possible, to connect with nature and get needed exercise. Allow older children to connect with their friends virtually.