Mental health and our children: Learn the the signs and help kids thrive
When the pandemic hit, my kids complained a lot. They missed going to the mall, out to eat and play dates with friends. I thought they would get used to it, but four months in, my 4-year-old asked when we were going to go anywhere with a ceiling. I guess he was sick of the great outdoors. I saw the desperation in his eyes when he asked how long the virus would be around. I had a lump in my throat when I told him that I didn’t know.
Then his sleeping habits changed. He started waking at 5 a.m. He’d also wake in the middle of the night and not go back to bed, which caused some behavioral problems with him … and me.
His 6-year-old sister started to get more anxious. Both kids felt better when they returned to in-person learning in fall 2020, but my daughter’s anxiety lingers, as does the 4-year-old’s erratic sleep.
The impact the pandemic has had on my kids is nothing compared to what’s seen around the country. Some kids aren’t as lucky as mine and haven’t had the chance to return to school, which provides routine and structure – exactly what kids thrive on. Some have lost family members, been sick themselves and faced turmoil at home (domestic violence, parents losing their jobs).
Children and teens rely on school for normalcy, and they depend on parents to tell them everything will be okay. Without either of those, maybe they’re feeling pretty lost right now. I’ve felt that way, too.
What I worry about is the kids who feel more than out of sorts. It unnerves me that from April to October 2020, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found that hospitals across the country saw a 24 percent increase in mental health emergency room visits for children 5-11. There was a 31 percent increase in children ages 12-17. These emergencies include suicide attempts.
I have experienced suicidal thoughts. It’s dark, confusing and frightening to be in so much pain that you’d sooner die than continue feeling it. My heart hurts for them, these babies.
Now is the time to switch focus to juvenile mental health. Right this second. It’s easy and convenient — and wrong — to think that once things “get back to normal,” our kids automatically will, too. Mental health affects how children learn and grow; an imbalance has serious ramifications if left untreated. And even if it’s situational, depression, anxiety and other disorders can take years to manage.
For some, it’s a lifelong struggle. Let’s not let COVID-19 and the colossal attendant upheaval ruin our children’s lives.
How to help:
- Discuss with your child emotions/feelings openly, and do so without judgment.
- Teach your child healthy coping skills to counteract anxiety and feelings of sadness, fear, anger.
- Maintain healthy eating and physical activity.
- Stick to a healthy sleep schedule.
- Teach your child how to journal.
Signs to look for (from the CDC):
- Irritability, and not necessarily sadness
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- Changes in behavior
- Increase in reporting stomachaches or headaches
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Being constantly worried about the future
Don’t be afraid to talk about suicidal thoughts. Just because you mention it, doesn’t mean you’re putting that thought in your child’s head.
If your child is having suicidal thoughts, take them to the nearest emergency room. For help with children’s mental health, contact their school counselor or primary care physician.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
For more than 20 years, Heather Loeb has experienced major depression, anxiety and a personality disorder, while also battling the stigma of mental health. She is the creator of Unruly Neurons (www.unrulyneurons.com), a blog dedicated to normalizing depression and a member of State Rep. Todd Hunter’s Suicide Prevention Taskforce.
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