What parents need to know about the mental health crisis in kids

Amid the stress, isolation, uncertainty, fear and grief that many have experienced during the pandemic, the US health care system has seen a sharp rise in mental health concerns among children — and health experts are sounding the alarm.

On December 7, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a public health alert that warned of a crisis among young people. This followed a joint statement in October in which the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Association of Children’s Hospitals declared a national emergency in child mental health.

“The mental health challenges of children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread,” Murthy wrote. “But most importantly, it is treatable and often preventable.”

Since the pandemic began, Murthy wrote, “Rates of psychological distress have increased among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.” “Recent research involving 80,000 young people globally found that symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of young people experiencing symptoms of depression and 20 percent experiencing symptoms of anxiety.”

Children’s organizations have declared a national child mental health crisis. (Photo: Getty Images)

In addition, “negative feelings or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability — associated with conditions such as ADHD — appear to have moderately increased,” he said.

Murthy also noted another “disturbing” trend: In early 2021, US emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts rose by nearly 51 percent among 12- to 17-year-old girls and increased by nearly 4 percent among teenage boys, compared to the same time period at the time. early. 2019.

For many parents, the pandemic era may be the first time they come to terms with the mental health struggles that arise in their children. This situation is further complicated by the lack of access to mental health resources. A September survey commissioned by DotCom Therapy, a provider of telehealth services for children, found that half of US parents or guardians of children under 18 were able to get the mental health care they were looking for for their children.

“This is very frank, but at this point, our behavioral health system is not equipped to meet the needs of families,” said Elaine Twohy, MD, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

So what should parents do if their child shows signs of depression, anxiety, or another type of mental health disorder? The simple answer: Get help ASAP.

“Often, parents and caregivers don’t know where to start, because supporting a child with mental health difficulties can be overwhelming and intimidating,” said licensed clinical social worker Michaela Landry, clinical director of DotCom Therapy.

Seeking help might include a visit to a pediatrician, family doctor or other primary care provider, or a conversation with a health care worker at your child’s school, Toohy says. Landry says making an appointment with a mental health therapist is another option.

If your child threatens to harm themselves or others, immediately call a crisis hotline (such as the American Society for Suicide Prevention, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness crisis text line) or head to the emergency room, Twohy recommended. Other organizations recommend calling 911 immediately.

A health care professional can determine the correct course of treatment for your child. Treatment may include medication or prescribed medications, or a combination of the two.

Landry says signs of mental health problems to watch for in children include:

  • Behavioral changes that interrupt their daily lives

  • constant sadness

  • irritability

  • Isolation from family and friends

  • difficulty sleeping

  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite

  • drastic changes in mood

  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks

  • Shifts in academic performance

  • Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, body aches and stomachaches

Parents can adopt a number of approaches to help children dealing with mental health issues. For example, they can start by encouraging their stressed children to get enough sleep (which affects children’s mental health), engage in daily physical activity (which experts say helps reduce levels of stress and depression), and eat healthy food. Food (Research shows that eating more vegetables and fruits is linked to better mental health in children.)

Twohy advised that parents should be “really honest and open” when inquiring about their children’s mental health. For example, it’s a good idea to ask the child if he has thoughts about harming himself if you suspect this is the case, she said.

In addition, Twohy suggested setting aside short periods of time with your kids to do fun and interesting activities like playing video games or board games, tackling an art project, or watching YouTube videos together. In these situations, it may be easier to start a conversation without showering your children with questions.

It is also important for parents to talk to their children about their emotions and mental health. “Normalizing the experience of difficult emotions and normalizing that we sometimes go through with our mental health is really important for families to work on,” Toohy said.

Tohey stressed that parents should carefully monitor their children’s behavior for any signs of mental health problems and provide them with the help they need. “It’s important to remember that children are resilient, and most people who go through difficult or traumatic events like those people have experienced in the past … do not develop a mental health disorder,” Toohy said.

It’s a statement Murthy echoed: “Many young people are resilient, able to recover from challenging experiences such as stress, adversity, and trauma.”

Twohy went on to say that “Children and teens had some very important mental health needs even before the pandemic. I think the pandemic is highlighting for us some needs that have already been around for a long time and are growing for a long time.”

If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to seek help. the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Open 24 hours a day 800-273-8255.

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