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Pandemic taking toll on mental health of youth, teens

As COVID infection rates begin to slowly decline, a recent study reveals the number of mental health-related medical visits for children is rising.

A CDC report released in late November shows that emergency department visits for children aged 5-11 were up by 24%, and for children 12-17 were up by 31% from the previous year.

“I am not surprised at all by these statistics. Many school-aged children were already mentally and emotionally ‘limping in’ to the pandemic,” said Deana Caldwell, a school psychologist and behavioral specialist with the Estill County school system. “The latest data from the CDC says that 1 in 6 American school-aged children have a mental health disorder that severely impacts their ability to function. That doesn’t count the young people who have anxiety or depression who don’t have access to see a physician.”

Caldwell says the pandemic showed that students’ coping skills weren’t as strong as assumed. “So, when the pandemic hit and we all went into quarantine, the social isolation, lack of routine and family-specific anxieties have naturally added to the stress of already having a mental health condition. Further, for those children without a diagnosed mental health condition, who were developing in mentally typical ways, all the above stressors have brought a realization that life really can change on a dime and not everything always works out perfectly,” she said.

Matt Flanagan, children and student ministry consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, says the study confirms what was already suspected. “The statistics from the CDC give evidence of what many church leaders see anecdotally – more children and students are experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety during the pandemic,” he said.

Caldwell and Flanagan agree that loss of community plays a significant role in the upswing of mental health issues in children.

“Children and students have been separated from their friends, sports teams, activities, extended family, teachers, coaches and much more,” Flanagan said.

“For adults with decades of life experience, we have the perspective to see this pandemic as temporary. Yet for a 10-year-old child, this pandemic has continued for nearly 10% of their life and a much higher percentage of their memory.”

“As Christ-followers, we know that God created us to be in community with others. A lot of our normal social networks have been rocked, changed and haven’t looked like they have in the past,” Caldwell said. “Children and youth don’t have the brain development or life experience yet to be able to use perspective. Many cannot even verbalize that what they really need is close, one-on-one interaction with their peers and loved ones because they just know they feel bad or depressed.”

Caldwell says parents and guardians can utilize these practical helps as they care for their children with the following tips:

• Establish and maintain routines as much as possible.

• Model coping skills for children.

• Show extra patience.

• Be mindful of stress and anxiety that is directed toward children.

• Be aware of social interaction. Online interaction is helpful, but safe in-person interaction with peers and loved ones is important when possible.

• Ask them if they would like to talk about how they are feeling or dealing with the current situation.

• Be intentional to get outdoors and exercise regularly.

Flanagan says Christian parents should intentionally speak of how their faith impacts the ways they are persevering in the crisis and pray with their children.

“As Christian parents, we need to be reminded that our God is mighty and sufficient to work in our every need. We need to continue to point our children to Christ in the midst of the current circumstances and remind them that He is our hope,” he said.

Parents should watch for signs of struggle, according to Caldwell. She says when children mention harming themselves or others, parents should take the comments seriously.

An inability or unusual unwillingness to complete routine tasks are potential signs of trouble. “If they aren’t functioning normally, such as not bathing regularly, eating too much or not eating at all, suddenly stopping seeing or talking to friends, withdrawal from the family that is more than normal, or grades significantly drop and homework is not being completed,” Caldwell said.

Flanagan encourages parents and guardians to reach for help when they feel unequipped to help their child. “In the same way we reach out to others for medical help or music lessons, we should do the same with certain mental health struggles,” he said.

There is a silver lining to the mental-health findings. “This research shows parents and guardians are better equipped than in previous years to recognize the signs of severe mental and emotional distress, and they are asking for help,” Caldwell said.

If you or anyone else you know are having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or text “hello” to 741741.