Addressing the mental health of youth struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic is something we need to deal with today and for the foreseeable future. Prior to the pandemic, the CDC estimated that 1 in 5 children had a mental health disorder but only 20% of them had access to treatment. Because of the pandemic, children’s routines were altered, they were not able to attend school, they missed doctor visits, and canceled vacations and holiday plans. Some children even experienced loss of loved ones, and food and housing insecurity.
Since the start of the pandemic, surveys have found significant increases in youth mental health difficulties. For example, 71% of parents in one study* said that the pandemic has worsened their child’s mental health, and 30% of teens in another study** reported feeling unhappy and depressed more often.
Ways to Help
While there is no simple fix to address the mental health crisis our youth are experiencing, ignoring it is not an option. There are things that we can do in our communities, places of worship, schools, and youth-facing organizations.
Mount Nittany Health is partnering with ClearWater Conservancy to host free, guided hikes that are perfect for all ages and skill levels. Hiking is proven to be good for both your physical and mental health.
I encourage children of all ages to be active outdoors. It’s an important component to physical wellness and can also help ward off depression and reduce anger, fear, anxiety, and stress.
Pediatricians are also adept at screening your child’s social and emotional health. Let teens visit their pediatrician one-on-one to allow them to speak openly. Young people cannot get the help they need if they don’t tell someone about their distressing thoughts and feelings, and speaking to a trusted adult makes it more likely that they will open up. For more information about Mount Nittany’s pediatric specialty visit mountnittany.org/pediatrics or call 814-355-3626.
The Centre County Suicide Prevention Task Force provides guidance in recognizing, responding to, and referring distressed individuals. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings is important. During stressful times it’s normal for children to feel anxious or irritable; however, if these feelings start getting in the way of relationships with friends or family, learning in school, and participating in valued activities, it may be a sign that the child needs support.
Know the signs
Beyond anxiety and worry, other changes in behavior can be signals that a child is in distress. Changes in behavior, sleeping patterns, withdrawal, recklessness, drug, or alcohol use, getting into trouble in school, and suicidal ideation are just some of the indicators of a distressed person.
If you see someone in distress the primary goal is to keep them safe. Call 911 in an emergency. The new 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another way to access professional help immediately. If you are dealing with someone in distress, actively listening to them and restating what they say can reassure them that you are listening and understand that they are asking for help.
Suicide on the rise
We have experienced an increase in youth suicide in the past two years. Not everyone who considers suicide talks about it and sometimes those who do, do not act on their words. However, if you suspect someone is suicidal, it’s important to ask them if they intend or have considered killing themselves. It’s important to know that when you ask someone if they are thinking about suicide, you are not instilling the thought. If you are worried about your child, make your home safe by removing weapons and securing medications and household cleaners. Checking in with them more frequently throughout the day is also recommended. Finally, reach out to professionals for help like the Mount Nittany Medical Center Emergency Department (814-231-7000), Centre County Crisis (1-800-643-5432), or the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988).
If we work to address the mental health crisis of our youth today, we can prevent more serious mental health disorders for children as they become adults and we can even save lives.
*Children’s Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic, luriechildrens.org, May 27, 2021
**The State of Young People During COVID-19, americaspromise.org, June 2020