Over the summer, as efforts were in place to get schools reopened in the fall, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, then the C.D.C. director, warned that an increase in adolescent suicides would be one of the “substantial public health negative consequences” of school closings. Studies were released with reports and resources to help schools, which provide counseling and other intervention services, to reach students virtually. Mental health advocacy groups warned that the demographics at the most risk for mental health declines, such as minorities, were among those most likely to be marginalized by the school closures.
Dr. Massetti of the C.D.C. has now said that since the lockdowns, school districts are reporting suicide clusters, and many were struggling to connect students with services.
Millions of children had relied on schools for mental health services that have now been restricted, she noted.
A report released by the CDC in November showed that mental health visits comprised a greater percentage of pediatric emergency room visits during the lockdowns in 2020, compared to the same months of the previous year. From mid-March 2020 through October, the same report stated, “the proportion of mental health–related (emergency department) visits increased sharply,” rising 24 percent among children ages 5 to 11, and 31 percent among adolescents ages 12 to 17, over the same period in 2019.
The report also states that “Those kids have higher acuity, higher levels of anxiety and depression, social isolation, food insecurity, and family stressors at home. There’s a stronger overlay of child abuse issues. Those kids aren’t able to be in school, so they’re enduring more abuse at home.”
I have personally seen this kind of child abuse in homes as an online teacher for students living in China. It was not uncommon for parents to punish their children with extreme measures and in some cases would strike their children repeatedly to compel them to adhere to the teacher’s instructions.
This was incredibly disturbing for me to witness as an educator, but also gave me real insight into how isolation and a lack of accountability around parenting can become not only counter productive, but downright dangerous.
We are clearly seeing now that many parents in our own country are simply not equipped to deal with the stress of managing a household, working from home and overseeing their children’s education without more established support systems. Few resources are available to either through the schools and in many cases they have been forced to take on the responsibility for their children’s education with little to no help in doing so.
In even worse situations, children don’t even have access to wifi or internet, and have been forced to sit outside their schools simply to be able to complete their school work.
It is clear that the situation has brought to light the need for significant attention to be given to these issues and start doing whatever we can to provide stability and mental health resources to our kids.
NPR interviewed medical providers at hospitals in seven states across the country, and all of them reported a similar trend: More suicidal children are coming to their hospitals — in worse mental states.
“The kids that we are seeing now in the emergency department are really at the stage of maybe even having tried or attempted or have a detailed plan,” says Dr. Vera Feuer, director of pediatric emergency psychiatry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of Northwell Health in New York. “And we’re admitting to the hospital more kids than usual because of how unwell they are.”
There is now more than enough evidence to show that the real pandemic we face is one that is claiming our children’s lives by their own hands. Not only is it something we can’t ignore, it’s something that we must take action to counteract.
Here are a few things we can all do to start to turn the tide and help our children not just find hope but find their own power in the midst of these difficult times:
- Start a local mental health awareness support group in your community.
This can be relatively easy to do. It can be as simple as starting a Facebook group and distributing messages in your neighborhood inviting others to join and help provide support to one another. You can also utilize the NextDoor app, which connects you to others in your area so you can meet and/or share resources virtually. This is an easy way to set up outdoor play dates, offer a listening ear or possibly swap services. If you are a mental health professional, you can provide your information to others and even offer group support sessions.
2. Check into local and state resources and have a list to provide others who you know are struggling.
Often we don’t seek help because they don’t know where to start. You can also find resources for your own family or others through local private non-profits in your area. Most of these can be found with a basic google search targeted for your city or town. Churches are a wonderful resource as well and often have organizations they can refer you to.
3. Keep a watchful eye on kids in your neighborhood.
Do you see them going outdoors at all? Do they have bruises, appear neglected or unkempt? Do you see their parents treating them poorly or hear disturbances from their home? These can often be signs of significant abuse and should be reported to authorities.
4. Watch your own children’s behavior closely.
Notice significant changes in their behavior or signs of depression. These can often come on without notice and may be triggered by an event you are not even aware of. Uncovering issues sooner rather than later can make all the difference in how they deal with their feelings and move through them. Set aside a few minutes each day to talk with them individually and really listen to what they have to say. Even your genuine interest can be enough to give them the courage to speak up. Be open to their response and let them know that you support them. If they do express that they are struggling, talk with them about the options for finding support and set a time to look into them together.
After many years of fighting my own family’s battles around mental health with limited resources, little to no support and even significant opposition at many points, I found the courage and strength to step into my power, begin our path to healing and, ultimately, wellness.
Now, I consistently share tools with the parents I work with to help them do the same. There is often far more information and help available than we realize. Now, maybe more than ever, we need to be ready to think outside the box and start exploring how to support ourselves and our kids in better ways. The cost of failing to do so is far too high.
The most important thing to know is that none of us have to do this alone. We are stronger when we come together and we have all the resources we need to raise each other up. In doing so, we will show our children what it means to be resilient, responsible and take control of our own well being. It’s time to claim the power and the birthright we have to live healthy and vibrant lives, and in doing so, empower our children to do the same.