Recently, all the children’s hospitals in Missouri released a joint letter documenting the “Shadow Pandemic,” related to the mental health disorders among America’s youths. On Dec. 7, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory noting the urgent need to address this mental health crisis, which has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 700 American children have died of COVID-19, and many more children have been impacted by the loss of a loved one because of the coronavirus. Exponentially more children have also been affected by the social isolation and trauma of the pandemic.
Mental health has been a concern well before the current pandemic. For example, in the 10 years prior to the pandemic, suicide rates among youths ages 10 to 24 increased by almost 60 percent. Visits to children’s hospital emergency departments for evaluation and treatment of mental illness since 2019 have increased by more than 30 percent. Preliminary data suggests that more than 6,600 children died from suicide in 2020, which is nine times more than the children who have died due to COVID-19.
Murthy’s advisory recommendations include:
- The essential recognition that mental health is a vital part of overall health must be emphasized.
- Youths and their families must be educated and empowered to recognize and manage challenging emotions.
- Every child must have access to high-quality, affordable and culturally competent mental health care.
- Communities must support the metal health of youths in all settings, including education and child care.
- Institutions must address the economic and social barriers (the social determinants of health) that contribute to poor mental health and poor access to care.
What can you, as parents, do? Here are a few things:
- Recognize that the change in routine – social isolation, masking, etc. – is stressful, and do what you can to reinforce routine and normalcy.
- Be aware that some significant life events are being missed, such as the prom, other school events, sports and social gatherings. Recognize the sense of loss and grief that will follow.
- Recognize and acknowledge the fear of the unknown, and respond with accurate and honest information.
- Reassure your kids that they are safe, and most important, be alert for changes in behavior and emotional status.
There will be a time that the pandemic is behind us, but in the meantime, we need to help our kids through this trauma.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Kids (mercykids.org), an expansive network of pediatric care dedicated to meeting the needs of every child, every day.