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Sharp Health News

Because of COVID, the kids aren’t alright

March 4, 2021

Tired student doing homework at home sitting with school books.
Being a preteen, teen or young adult can be challenging in the best of times. Add a pandemic and all its related precautions, restrictions and stressors, and we're now seeing the signs of a mental health crisis among young people in the U.S.

According to Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, there have been significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in young people ages 11 to 21 during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to the same period in 2019. This indicates that young people - like people of all ages - are experiencing increased distress due to COVID-19.

"While there are many emotions that are conjured by COVID-19, by far anxiety is the most prevalent emotion that I have observed - and even felt myself," says Wiara Jackson, LCSW, lead medical social worker at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. "Work, school and how we as a society interact have all been disrupted and look very different than it did a year ago. The lack of socialization has also contributed to feelings of isolation and loneliness, and even escalated to depression."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that the pandemic has negatively affected much of young people's lives in the following ways:
  • Changes in their routines, as they must physically distance from family, friends, schoolmates, teammates, co-workers and their worship community
  • Breaks in continuity of learning or employment, as schools - elementary through higher education - have been forced to move to online formats, and jobs or internships have been reduced or eliminated
  • Breaks in continuity of health care, with well-check and immunization visits postponed and limited access to mental, speech and occupational health services
  • Missed significant life events, such as graduations, birthday celebrations, vacation plans and other milestones, including leaving home for college and starting first jobs
  • Lost security and safety, such as housing and food insecurity, increased exposure to violence and online harm, threats of physical illness and uncertainty for the future
Signs of stress
How can parents know whether their child is successfully coping, or is completely overwhelmed by the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic?

According to Jackson, there are some key signs to watch for that indicate your child is feeling substantial stress:
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Irritability and "acting out" behaviors
  • Poor school or work performance or increased absence
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches, stomachaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
How you can help
Jackson recommends that the first step is to talk to your child if you notice any of these signs. "Having an open line of communication is important," she says. "Let them know that it is OK if they feel upset, and it's also OK to ask for help."

She joins the CDC and other experts in recommending additional ways you can support them:
  • Help them come up with healthy ways to cope with stress, such as exercise, art, music and connecting with others - and be a role model by following your own advice.
  • Discuss the importance of taking breaks from social media, as well as phone, TV and computer screens.
  • Ensure they maintain their health by keeping up their hygiene and other healthy behaviors - exercising, getting quality sleep, eating a healthy diet and avoiding substance use - as well as attending regular well-checks and mental health appointments.
  • Encourage them to stay socially connected, both virtually through phone and video chats, online gaming and other online activities, as well as in person through safe outdoor activities, such as playing non-contact sports, taking hikes or visiting the beach or local parks with friends.
  • Talk to them about the importance of maintaining regular routines and schedules - when they wake and go to sleep, attend classes or work, have meals, and enjoy social and recreational activities.
  • Spend time with them in meaningful activities, such as exercising together, playing board games or watching a favorite movie.
  • Discuss things you are both looking forward to once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted - traveling, dating, going to parties, attending graduation or other big celebrations - and how these things will be possible in the future.
However, for strong emotional responses or chronic stress not reduced by any of the techniques listed above, Jackson suggests professional counseling may be necessary. Talk with your child's pediatrician or encourage them to reach out to their primary care doctor about their options for appropriate and effective care.

Learn more about child and adolescent mental health programs at Sharp HealthCare. There are also several hotlines that can provide counseling in the moment. If your child, teen or young adult is experiencing a serious mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911 if they may be at risk for self-harm or suicide.

Join mental health experts from Sharp Mesa Vista’s Child and Adolescent Program for a free webinar to help parents manage through the current crisis with their kids. Learn how to identify signs and symptoms that your child or teen may be struggling with mental distress, how to help them through it, and when to seek help.

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