Alan D. Blotcky
A 9-year-old girl drew me a picture of a young child surrounded by a dark, swirling storm and four stick figures lying in hospital beds with long tubes attached.
A 12-year-old girl told me: “We’ve been at home together for a long time and we love each other but we’re getting in each other’s way. I don’t know who’s more upset, me or my parents? We are a scared family right now.”
And a 14-year-old boy said: “My grandmother died yesterday from COVID. I’m so sad. And I’m scared for me and my mom and my dad. And even my little sister.”
Being a clinical psychologist who treats children and teenagers has given me a unique vantage point during this nearly two-year pandemic. I have seen firsthand the psychological toll this national crisis has taken on our youth.
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The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health shows that 46% of parents have noticed a new or worsening mental health condition in their teens since the start of the pandemic. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital noticed up to a 75% increase in children who have shown up for emergency mental health evaluations. Pediatricians at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., have noted a sharp increase in kids coming in with mental health issues.
I have evaluated and treated about 90 children and teens in my private practice since March 2020. Here’s what I have learned:
Anxiety has been common. Many have had an intense fear of COVID-19. The running death count on television and online is a stark reminder of the disease’s ferociousness, and what could happen to them and their loved ones.
The disruption in daily activities has been stress-inducing for many youngsters. When schools closed, kids were upset because they could not see their friends or favorite teachers. They had to give up sports, extracurricular activities and social time with peers. Virtual learning was especially challenging and frustrating for some.
Overall, the uncertainty of the pandemic has created immense anxiety among kids. And the uncertainty has been toxic because it has been looming large for almost two years.
A child’s anxiety is often a visible sign that he or she is facing something worrisome or scary. It also can be a red flag for a real disorder – such as post-traumatic stress disorder – which can develop after a traumatic event such as a long, life-threatening pandemic.
Depression is common problem
Depression has been another common problem in these youth. I have seen depression in children and teens who have been infected with COVID-19 or whose parent or parents have been ill. A few of my patients have lost a grandparent to the disease, two have lost a parent and one young girl lost both of her parents.
Sadness is a natural response to an external catastrophe or the loss of a loved one. It can develop into a depressive disorder if symptoms become pervasive and incapacitating. Among youth, depression often manifests itself in irritability, argumentativeness and withdrawal.
Some children and teenagers who already have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder have worsened during the pandemic. These kids have become highly distressed and more symptomatic. And their parents have become alarmed and even panicked as they see their child or teenager suffer.
8 steps can help kids’ mental health
Here are eight steps parents and other adults can take to improve the mental health of children and teenagers during this pandemic:
►Listen and answer questions simply and honestly.
►Model how to manage feelings.
►Provide love, support and reassurance.
►Help maintain a daily routine that is as normal as possible.
►Encourage social support from peers and family members.
►Make sure health mitigation measures are used, especially handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing.
►Get them vaccinated.
►Seek out therapy if their concerns or symptoms are significant.
Even with the emergence of the omicron variant, most of my young patients believe that we have turned the tide on the pandemic. Schools are open, peer relationships have been reestablished and normal daily life has resumed in large measure.
As a 15-year-old boy recently told me: “Being back in school has been great. I just got vaccinated. I’m still wearing my mask when I’m out. Life is good. I want it to stay that way.”
Alan D. Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He can be reached at [email protected]