Amid the stress, isolation, insecurity, fear and grief that many have experienced during the pandemic, the US health care system has seen a sharp increase in mental health among children – and health experts are sounding the alarm.
On December 7, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a public health warning warning of a crisis among young people. This followed a joint statement in October in which the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health.
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and they are widespread,” Murthy wrote. “But most importantly, they can be treated and often prevented.”
Since the pandemic began, “the number of mental disorders among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental disorders, has increased,” Murthy wrote. “Recent research covering 80,000 adolescents globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of adolescents experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms.”
In addition, “negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability – associated with conditions such as ADHD – appear to have increased moderately,” he said.
Murthy also mentioned another “immediate” trend: In early 2021, the number of visits to the U.S. Emergency Department for suspected suicide attempts increased by nearly 51 percent among girls ages 12 to 17 and increased by nearly 4 percent among young boys compared to the same period in early 2019.
For many parents, the pandemic may be the first time they have ever dealt with mental health issues that occur in their children. The complication of this situation is the lack of access to mental health resources. A September study commissioned by DotCom Therapy, a provider of pediatric telehealth services, found that only half of U.S. parents or guardians of children under 18 were able to get the mental health care they sought for their children.
“This is pretty honest, but at the moment, our behavioral health system is not equipped to meet the needs of families,” said Eileen Twohy, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
So what should a parent do if their child shows signs of depression, anxiety or some other form of mental illness? The simple answer: Get help as soon as possible.
“So often parents and relatives do not know where to start, as it can be overwhelming and frightening to support a child with mental health problems,” said Michaela Landry, an authorized clinical social worker at DotCom Therapy.
Twohy says seeking help may involve a visit to a pediatrician, family doctor or other primary care provider or a talk with a healthcare professional at your child’s school. Landry says it’s another option to book an appointment with a mental health therapist.
If your child threatens to injure themselves or other people, call an emergency hotline immediately (such as the American Society for Suicide Prevention, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Crisis Text Line) or go to an emergency room, Twohy is recommended . Other organizations recommend calling 911 immediately.
A healthcare professional can determine the right course of treatment for your child. Treatment may include therapy or prescription medication or a combination of the two.
Landry says that signs of mental health problems in children include:
Behavioral changes that interrupt their daily lives
Isolation from family and friends
Loss of appetite or increased appetite
Drastic changes in mood
Difficulty focusing on the tasks
Change in academic achievement
Unexplained physical symptoms such as headache, body aches and abdominal pain
Parents can embrace a variety of approaches to helping children who are dealing with mental health issues. For example, they can start by encouraging their stressed children to get an adequate amount of sleep (which affects children’s mental health), participate in daily physical activity (which experts say helps reduce levels of stress and depression) and eat healthy. food (research shows that consuming more vegetables and fruits is associated with better mental well-being in children).
Twohy advised that parents should be “really straightforward and open” when inquiring about their children’s mental health. For example, it’s OK to ask a child if they have nurtured thoughts of self-harm if you suspect that is the case, she said.
In addition, Twohy suggested separating short periods with your kids for casual, fun activities like playing video or board games, tackling an art project, or watching YouTube videos together. In these situations, it may be easier to start a dialogue without simply teasing your children with questions.
It is also important for parents to talk to their children about their own feelings and mental health. “Normalizing the experience of hard feelings and normalizing that we sometimes have a hard time with our mental health is really important for families to work on,” Twohy said.
Twohy stressed that parents should carefully observe their children’s behaviors in order to detect signs of mental health problems and give them the help they need. “It’s important to remember that children are resilient, that most people who go through difficult or traumatic events like the ones people have been through in the past … do not develop a mental illness,” Twohy said.
It is a statement repeated by Murthy: “Many young people are resilient, able to recover from difficult experiences such as stress, adversity and trauma.”
Twohy went on to say that “children and adolescents had some pretty significant mental health needs even before the pandemic. I think the pandemic highlights some needs for us that have really existed for a long time and have been increasing for a long time.”
If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek help. That National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
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