Parents worry about growing post-pandemic youth mental health crisis – The Hill

Story summary


  • The pandemic has exacerbated many mental health issues among children and teens.

  • School social workers are noticing that students struggle with social interactions and processing emotions.

  • Parents expressed concern about their children’s mental health in a new Pew Research Center survey.

A growing youth mental health crisis is fueling concern among parents as children and teens continue to struggle after returning to school in person.

Young people’s mental health declined dramatically in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were closed and most students were learning remotely. School administrators and caregivers were optimistic that the crisis could ease this year after most students returned to classrooms during the 2021-2022 school year.

“It was the hope that after settling in freshman year and going back to face-to-face learning, some things would have slowed down,” says Terriyln Rivers-Cannon, a school social worker for more than 20 years and president of the Association of School Social Workers at Georgia.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Midway through the 2022-2023 school year, school social workers are finding that young people are still struggling with a high level of mental health issues, and new research shows that many parents are concerned about their children’s anxiety and depression.

“We are now getting a real picture of what is really happening or has happened,” says Rivers-Cannon.

Many of the mental health challenges young people face today are a result of historical trauma from when they were around others in their families during the lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, she says. Now that restrictions have eased, she explains, young people seem to be releasing their feelings from these traumatic situations, which they may have held inside, in a different way.

“We have a lot of students who also struggled to manage their emotions and are acting out,” says Lisa Ciappi of Effective School Solutions.

Some students are also struggling to forget how to interact with peers and socialize face-to-face, she noted.

“The acuity of the challenges seems to have increased for many students,” says Ciappi. “We are seeing many more students who are in greater need of support.”

Research shows crisis was slow to come – but it has become overwhelming

The youth mental health crisis now affecting the country “has actually probably been going on for 15 years,” says Duncan Young, who is CEO of Effective School Solutions.

Surveys and statistics measuring young people’s mental health by a variety of different metrics remained relatively stable until about 2009, says Young. After that, a turning point marked the beginning of a steady degradation of young people’s mental health. In recent years, this decline has also been accompanied by a consistent increase in suicide rates and emergency room visits among young people for psychiatric reasons.

The reason for the decline in young people’s mental health, suggests Young, is the rise of technology and social media. The use of smartphones and social media is linked to increased mental distress, self-harm and suicidal ideation among young people.

And the fall, already underway, gained strength during the pandemic.

“We have to take seriously the fact that many young people feel socially isolated and marginalized,” says Joshua Langberg, director of the Center for Youth Socio-Emotional Wellness at Rutgers University, in an email. “The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with a significant increase in stress and social isolation for families, and these are two of the biggest drivers of mental health.”

The isolating effect of remote learning and other stressors, such as food insecurity compounded by children no longer having access to school lunches, may have harmed young people’s mental health amid the pandemic.

Some children may also have suffered adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as violence, abuse or neglect.

ACEs have been linked to mental illness, among other negative health impacts, in adolescence and adulthood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And research suggests its impact may be widespread: A recent study found that more than two-thirds of the 20,000 Florida teens surveyed said they had at least one adverse childhood experience, and about 23% said they had four or more.

Many parents are concerned

Amid the ongoing crisis, more than three-quarters of parents are at least somewhat concerned about their children’s mental health, according to a report published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

The survey included 3,757 US parents with children under 18. Mental health topped the list of concerns for parents, ahead of bullying and kidnapping. Forty percent of respondents said they were extremely or very concerned about their child struggling with anxiety or depression, while another 36 percent said they were somewhat concerned.

This concern was most prevalent among white and Hispanic parents, the report’s lead author and research associate Rachel Minkin at the Pew Research Center noted in an email.

“White and Hispanic parents are more likely than Black and Asian parents to be concerned that their child will suffer from anxiety or depression, and Black and Hispanic parents are more likely to say they are extremely or very concerned about their child’s development. fact that their children were shot or got into trouble with the police,” she said.

Families, schools, peers and doctors can offer some support

Mental health support for children starts at home with caregivers and parents. Families can speak honestly about the stress they’ve been through in recent years and honor the hard work everyone has put in to overcome it, Langberg suggests.

“The increased stress likely put strain on some important relationships. People were just surviving and surviving,” says Langberg. “Perhaps some negative communication patterns have developed. Start doing small things to change those patterns.”

One parent in the Pew survey said, “I didn’t have a safe place to express my emotions or feel understood. I try to have weekly conversations with my kids to check in on their emotions and see how they are doing. Even if they’ve had a good week, I’ve found it’s still nice to remind them that you’re there for them.”

Parents and school counselors should let awareness be a welcoming thought and continually instill in young people that it’s OK to not be okay, says Rivers-Cannon. “When conversations come up about it, it can’t be something you allow to lie dormant.”

Schools are also a crucial space for young people to receive mental health services and support. However, resource and staff shortages make it difficult for schools to serve their student communities in this way.

With school officials often unable to provide the necessary support, students may at least be able to turn to their peers.

“On the bright side, what I’m hearing and noticing is that kids are connecting more with their classmates,” says Rivers-Cannon. “We have more peer groups that are connecting, which is wonderful because it means they are building trust with each other.”

Another support space is the doctor’s office.

In October 2022, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended that children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 be screened for anxiety. The agency also recommends screening 12- to 18-year-olds for depression. Early screenings can help children and teens get the care they need.

Jason Nagata, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, notes that a growing number of pediatricians are screening young people for ACEs.

“It’s important that screening leads to better health outcomes for children and teens who experience ACEs,” he says. He also notes that “pediatricians should be aware that black girls and youth have the highest rates of ACEs.”

In addition to screenings, clinicians can share guidance with caregivers and help refer them to additional sources of support, such as local mental health clinics or youth programs.

Ultimately, resources are needed that can be shared with families, the community and stakeholders, because “if we’re not connecting and networking, we can’t serve the individuals who will be our future,” says Rivers-Cannon.

Parents worry about growing post-pandemic youth mental health crisis – The Hill

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