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  • Writer's pictureLea Ray, LCSW

The national emergency in children's mental health

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, declared a state of national emergency in children’s mental health. In the declaration, they point out that mental health problems in children have been steadily increasing for more than ten years. “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.”

It goes on, “The pandemic has intensified this crisis: across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.” The declaration points out that 140,000 children in this country, disproportionately children of color, have lost a caregiver to covid. Children of color are also suffering from a greater increase in depression, anxiety and other mental health problems than white children. Structural racism has caused covid to impact communities of color more severely, and 2020 and 2021 have seen a huge jump in acts of racial violence and hate crimes.

The pandemic has also upended children’s lives, with schools going remote, kids staying home for weeks or months on end, and exhausted and stressed out parents struggling to work from home. Kids are seeing frightening stories on the news and hearing them discussed at the dinner table. Things are (in many ways) better now than they were in 2020, but many kids are missing days or weeks of school after covid exposures or school closings, and when they are in school they’re not allowed to talk at lunch or participate in all of the usual school activities. This article in the New York Times details the situation well.

The declaration by the AAP calls for better funding and infrastructure for mental health services for children, as well as suicide prevention efforts in schools and communities. There is a longstanding therapist shortage in the U.S., that has been exacerbated as so many of us need mental health treatment during the pandemic.

What can you as a parent do to support your child during this difficult time? First, be understanding. It is easy to forget that the life we are living now is not normal, because we have been slogging through for so long. I have spoken with several parents recently who are surprised that their child is struggling. Take a minute and try to remember your life, and your child’s life, in 2019. We are not living that life right now. Yes, humans are resilient and we will get through this! But this time is hard! Take a minute to be compassionate and understanding with yourself as well. You may feel like you are operating normally, but none of us are at this point. If you are feeling more frazzled and irritable, that is completely normal and understandable.

Which brings me to the next point – can you find a way to take some self-care for yourself? Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. I know it can be very hard to make time for self-care when your child’s school just closed and you don’t know how you’re going to report to work tomorrow, or when you have to go to three different grocery stores to get the dinner ingredients -- but if at all possible, seize a moment to do something enjoyable and relaxing, even as simple as reading for 20 minutes or taking an extra-long shower. Next, can you offer some self-care to your child? For a child, that might look like a play date with a friend, a special outing, or just some quality time and snuggles with you.

Then, see if your child wants to talk about how he’s feeling. Let him know that you realize this is a hard time, and just see if anything is on his mind. If not, that’s ok. Just let him know you’re there for him if he ever wants to talk. If, on the other hand, he is very dramatic about his problems, let him be. We all want to vent and be dramatic sometimes! You don’t have to go along with the drama all the time, but if you opened the door to ask how he’s doing, just be sympathetic regardless of what he has to say.

If your child is struggling to manage her unhappiness or anxiety, offer to show her some calm-down strategies. I’ll be posting in the next few weeks about how to help children handle big feelings. If that doesn’t help, you may want to seek a therapist for your child.

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