Essay: Covid-19 Brings Mental Health Crisis for Children

2021 brings with it the hope and determination that the year ahead will be better than the last. However, as we pass the anniversary of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the U.S., this year also brings uncertainty as we continue to navigate this time for ourselves, friends, co-workers, family, and especially, our children.

As the pandemic rages and new strains are discovered in tandem with the rollout of a vaccine, we are experiencing a simultaneous mental health crisis that has left no one untouched. Children and adolescents are experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression (among other mental health issues), as the pandemic hits upon our fears of separation, loss, and death. Children and adolescents are bombarded with interruptions to their routines; they have also had to contend with fear, anxiety, trauma, and death – all of this with no breaks in between.

According to the CDC, emergency room visits for mental health-related emergencies increased by 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and by 31 percent for adolescents ages 12 to 18 from April until October of 2020. Young children, ages 3 to 6, were more fearful of family members getting COVID and had a harder time when separated from them. Children experienced worsening sleep and nightmares, loss of appetite, and trouble focusing or concentrating. These effects are compounded for those communities hardest hit by the pandemic, including low-income and disenfranchised populations.

We are all trying to adjust to a world that seems out of control. Caregivers are no exception. In June 2020, Pediatrics found that 27 percent of parents surveyed reported worsening mental health for themselves since March, with mothers facing the brunt of this mental health fallout.

The National Women’s Law Center found that women left the labor force at four times the rate of men in September 2020 with Latina and Black women at 11.0 percent and 11.1 percent unemployment rates for that month, respectively (double the rate pre-pandemic). Loss of employment, food security, housing security, insurance, school systems, and access to childcare means that it is impossible for parents to pretend like everything is normal. So how do we support our kids’ mental health when we’re struggling to take care of ours?

According to Kelsey Sillerud, LCSW and CA-IFECMH Endorsed Infant/Family and Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist, “We’re all in a heightened stress response due to loss of control. We, especially young children, are trying to find some agency in a really uncertain world.” Sillerud, the CDC, and others make several recommendations to help manage our kids’ anxieties around the pandemic:

  1. Talk to our kids. Validate their emotions and fears. They are much more attuned than we give them credit for. If we are anxious but not acknowledging it, they’re going to pick up on our emotional undertones and we will see this reflected behaviorally (kids and adolescents may withdraw or start acting out). For young children, it is recommended to use simple language to discuss our emotions, and for adolescents, we can be more direct.
  2. Consistency is important to our kids’ development, but routines have been completely disrupted by the pandemic (schools shutting down, hybrid learning, canceled sports and extra-curriculars). Create new routines at home to help kids build that reliability back into their daily lives. This routine can be simple: implement the same wake-up, meal, and bedtimes. Time for school, activities, and socializing (using safe protocols). Adjust expectations. Our kids are not able to perform at the same levels they were prior to the pandemic. We need to be flexible in our expectations of what they can do right now and build structure around that. This will create consistency in the day-to-day and help them feel more in control.
  3. We can engage our kids in the measures we are taking to keep them, and ourselves, safe: the importance of wearing masks, washing our hands, and social distancing. In doing this, we address some of the universal fears around loss and death and help provide them with a sense of agency. We show them the measures we are taking to ensure their safety and empower them to keep themselves and others safe as well.
  4. Teens are feeling the loss of regular socializing with their friends and this is contributing to an increase in symptoms of depression. We know safety cannot be compromised, but we can modify how we socialize. Make sure your kids have time and space to FaceTime with their friends and families, or see them in appropriate, socially-distanced spaces.

Most importantly, we cannot support our kids if we are not well. When we are preoccupied, we cannot be present and attuned to them. We need to make sure we are taking time for ourselves, however we can find it. This could look like short meditations, exercise, eating healthy, and/or finding restful sleep. Turn off the news. Engage in some deep breathing.

Given how many citizens of this country are struggling with economic, food, and housing insecurities resulting from the pandemic, self-care, as many tend to think about it (i.e. spa days), may not be accessible or even plausible. But taking care of ourselves does not require much of our time or money, and it is imperative to find something grounding to do for ourselves that will help stabilize us and bring us into the present. For us and for our kids.

Erin O’Neil, LCSW, is a Clinician at Mountainside treatment center.

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