(NEW YORK) — A report released this week from the United States surgeon general warns of a growing mental health crisis among young people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Citing statistics like an over 50% increase in emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls and the doubling of symptoms of anxiety and depression reported across genders, the 53-page advisory from Dr. Vivek H. Murthy says the challenges faced by young people, including during the pandemic, are having a “devastating” effect on their mental health.
“The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate,” Murthy writes in the advisory, calling it both a moral and medical obligation to respond and provide resources for children and families.
Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association — which collectively represent over 77,000 physicians and over 200 children’s hospitals — declared children’s mental health challenges amid the pandemic a “national emergency.”
Amid the warnings, here are five takeaways for parents from mental health and medical experts.
1. The pandemic created a ‘perfect storm’ of mental health issues.
While the mental health crisis among youth has been growing for decades, the pandemic both sped up the crisis and put it out in the open, according to Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.
“It’s important for parents to recognize how unique the stressor,” Prinstein said of the pandemic. “It’s global. There’s no end in sight. It has potentially dire consequences and it’s changed kids roles and routines, and social engagement.”
“That combination of factors is kind of the worst combination you would want in a stressor when it comes to mental health,” he said.
Prinstein described the surgeon general’s advisory as a chance to reshape how the country thinks about mental health now that we’re talking about it.
“The pandemic has taught us to care about mental health and to talk about it openly because we’re all experiencing a perfect storm of mental health in many ways,” said Prinstein, who provided input to the surgeon general on the advisory. “But we can’t continue to think of the mental health system as only a system that deals with acute crises once someone needs therapy.”
“We really have to be thinking about the mental health system as an opportunity to build prevention into schools, into families, into communities and help kids have the psychological skills to be resilient,” he said.
2. Think of your kids’ mental health just like you would their physical health.
Just like parents make sure children get to annual doctors’ appointments and stay on track with vaccinations, so too should parents make sure their kids’ mental health is monitored, according to Dr. Erlanger “Earl” Turner, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Kids.
“Even if you don’t know for sure that your child is experiencing some of the symptoms or warning signs that were noted in the report, it’s OK to go get a check-in,” he said. “Just like we think about going to the doctor on a regular basis, maybe you go to a therapist.”
Turner continued, “Maybe you don’t establish a long-term relationship with a therapist, but maybe that one sort of visit can let you know that everything is going OK, or there are more serious things to think about.”
3. Look for changes in kids’ behaviors and moods.
While mental illness presents in different ways in different people, parents should watch for changes in their kids’ moods and behaviors, ranging from excessive sleeping during the day to a lack of concentration, unwarranted frustration and a decreased desire to participate in normally enjoyable activities, according to Dr. Darien Sutton, a New York City-based emergency room physician.
“I also try to remind parents to trust your gut,” said Sutton. “We often have inclinations that something is wrong before it becomes obvious and we should use that moment to open conversations and to seek out help from a trusted provider.”
4. Model good mental health behavior yourself.
Prinstein said it is “absolutely critical” that parents talk to their kids about mental health. He recommends that parents discuss suicide, for example, in the same way they would have conversations with their kids about sex and drugs.
“A great way for parents to start is to ask their kids what they would do if they had a friend who was experiencing difficulties,” said Prinstein. “It gives kids a chance to see how their parents would react when they start talking about things that are sensitive or maybe challenging.”
“If they see that their parents are able to have the conversation in a way that is not alarmist but is empathic, that the parents themselves can handle the stress of talking about those things … it makes it so much more likely that kids themselves will talk about their own feelings,” he said.
Likewise, Turner said how parents handle their own mental health struggles can have an impact on kids.
“Kids are going to take cues from you,” he said. “We all have experienced different challenges emotionally throughout the pandemic, even as adults and parents, so sharing your own challenges that you’ve experienced can let kids know that everyone is not always perfect — for mom and dad too.”
Turner added, “If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, maybe take out a mindfulness app on your phone and do it with your kid.”
5. Know that help is available.
While finding help for mental health can in some cases be costly and time-consuming, there are resources out there, according to the experts.
The American Psychological Association offers an online resource, EffectiveChildTherapy.org, with information for parents, from how to know when a child needs to seek professional help to how to find an expert.
A child’s pediatrician or medical provider is also a good place to turn for help.
Turner also recommended thinking of your child’s school as a mental health resource.
“Most schools have a school psychologist or some sort of counselor on staff to address emotional, mental health and behavioral challenges with kids,” he said. “So parents should know that’s a resource for them.”
“And if you have a child that has a diagnosis already, it’s also really important for parents to know that schools can address accommodations for those kids in the school setting,” added Turner. “Speaking to the school counselor or the principal or teachers may be helpful to address mental health challenges and make sure that kids get modifications.”
If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.
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