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Kids Faced a Mental Health Crisis During the Pandemic. Here’s What We Learned.

The pandemic has been hard on us all. For a variety of reasons, many of us in 2020 and 2021 faced new challenges to our status quo — challenges that took a toll on our mental and physical health, forcing us into the perhaps unfamiliar position of asking others for help or even seeking professional care.

Few population groups faced more acute challenges than children and adolescents. Despite the best efforts of access-focused behavioral health providers such as Oceans Healthcare, the demand for mental health treatment among young people simply overwhelmed the industry during the pandemic.

Moreover, it’s clearer by the week that the pandemic established a new, higher baseline for mental health needs among young people. Moving forward, this elevated level of need will persist even in whatever passes for the new “normal.”

As we prepare for what’s still to come, let’s take stock of what we’ve already learned from the mental health experience of young people during the pandemic. Behavioral health providers will surely need to apply these lessons learned in the years to come.

Kids Show Signs of Stress Differently As They Age

It may come as no surprise that kids manifest stress and emotional strain differently as they age. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, younger children tend to show stress through nonverbal cues, like increased fussiness, clinginess, and bedwetting after potty training. Older children may experience seemingly atypical mood swings, loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, or negative changes in academic performance.

Parents, guardians, and mentors need to watch these cues carefully. It can be difficult in the moment to distinguish a bad day from a longer-lasting shift. But it’s better to be proactive about potentially concerning developments than to hope that it’s “just a phase.”

Children Often Can’t (Or Don’t Want to) Discuss Their Mental Health With Parents

Parents and guardians don’t expect younger children to discuss their mental health concerns. Even when they want to express those concerns, they may struggle to do so verbally.

The reluctance to openly talk about mental health issues is more frustrating for parents of older children, especially when the parent-child relationship seems healthy otherwise. But parents must persevere. It’s important to ask your child how they’re feeling, remind them that you’re there for them, and make it clear that they can ask you for help as needed. And if and when you recognize a need for behavioral health intervention that you’re not qualified to provide on your own, it’s your responsibility to arrange it.

It’s Often Difficult to Distinguish Between Normal Development and Issues That May Require Intervention

Let’s return to that eternal wellspring of parental hope — the feeling that it’s “just a phase.” While child development is inevitably bumpy, and what may seem concerning to one pediatric behavioral health specialist might seem perfectly normal to another, parents concerned about how their children are coping with the pandemic and its aftermath may want to err on the side of caution. Better to ask questions now than to wish you had later.

Pandemic-Related Mental Health Issues May Disproportionately Affect Vulnerable Communities

The mental health challenges affecting younger people are not evenly distributed within the pre-adult population. As is the case for older people, the pandemic’s mental health impact is disproportionately felt in vulnerable communities — among children of color, LGBTQ youth, and lower-income young people. Likewise, for better or worse, mental health outcomes tend to correlate within families and households. Parents and guardians dealing with their own mental health challenges, pandemic-related or otherwise, may directly or indirectly affect their kids’ mental health.

The Pandemic May Have Contributed to a Rise in Substance Use Among Adolescents and Teens

While the long-term trendline remains uncertain, it appears that the pandemic has contributed to a temporary rise in substance use among adolescents and teens. If sustained, this would set back the considerable progress made by recent public health campaigns and could further increase demand on pediatric and young adult behavioral health services.

A Long Road Back to “Normal”

Uncertainty still reigns as a result of the pandemic, and not just in the mental health field. We’re all struggling to find our way toward a new “normal” without being totally sure that it’s actually on the way.

We do know that the pandemic has created new and acute mental health challenges for young people, and that those challenges won’t simply disappear at some future point in time. To compensate, mental and behavioral healthcare providers need to adjust their approach to caring for children and adolescents — and how they work with their parents, guardians, and teachers as well. It’s a long road back to “normal,” and we’re all in this together.

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