Let’s talk about the crisis in children’s mental health

That young people are struggling mightily to recover from the anxiety, isolation and fears caused by the pandemic should surprise no one. Three pediatric groups call it a national emergency.

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Children’s mental health must be a priority for our country.

The United States must make children’s mental health a priority.

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There’s another wave of this pandemic about which experts have sounded the alarm, and it’s got nothing to do with the Omicron variant or the latest uptick in coronavirus cases.

This “fourth wave,” as some experts call it, is the worsening crisis in mental health among children and adolescents who are struggling, like the rest of us, to cope with the effects of the worst public health emergency in a century.

Politicians and policy makers, take note: As a nation, protecting the health of the country’s young people must be one of our top priorities.

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The crisis is now a national emergency, a coalition of three major children’s health organizations warned recently: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association. The problem is especially acute among children and adolescents of color, whose communities have been hardest hit by COVID-19.

But young people across every social and economic class, and among all races and ethnic groups, are affected. Soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts have been reported among children and teens nationwide, the organizations reported in a joint statement in October.

Here in Chicago, as one expert told us recently, health care providers are overwhelmed.

“Every day, kids are sitting in emergency rooms, on medical units awaiting psychiatric placement,” said Dr. Frank Belmonte, a primary care pediatrician and chief medical officer at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “We already had a paucity of mental health services [for children]. The pandemic only made that worse.”

It’s up to every adult who can make a difference to pay attention and contribute, even in small ways, to solutions.

Already stressed out

That young people are struggling mightily to recover from the anxiety, isolation and fears caused by the pandemic should surprise no one.

They spent an entire school year, for the most part, attending school on electronic screens. Classmates, favorite teachers, sports, extracurricular activities — all those things that are paramount in their lives and contribute to mental well-being — were gone.

Many young people lost parents and other loved ones. More than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19, the coalition of experts reported.

Teachers warned that students would need much more support to deal with the trauma when in-person schooling resumed. And this fall, teachers in suburban Chicago have indeed reported an uptick in students acting out since returning to the classroom.

“The emotional-social readiness that our kids have right now . . . is, quite honestly, about two years behind what we typically see,” a teacher from Elgin told WBEZ in October.

But the crisis goes far beyond school misbehavior. At Advocate Children’s Hospital, during the first six months of 2021, the second most common diagnoses on medical wards involved behavioral health issues, Belmonte reports.

“We’ve never seen numbers this high,” he said.

Mental health problems among young people were already worsening before COVID-19, for a host of reasons including the negative influences of social media.

Throw in a global pandemic, Belmonte said, and a bad situation gets even worse.

It’s up to adults

There is no magic bullet to solve the problem, of course. But for children who need intensive care, additional federal and state funding for psychiatric beds in hospitals, clinics and other facilities is needed.

Forty-eight of 50 states have a severe shortage of beds for teens and children who need in-patient psychiatric care, Belmonte said. Illinois is among them.

Not every troubled young person will need in-patient care. Schools and other community-based resources must have the resources to provide professional counseling and other support.

To that end, it’s a good sign that Chicago Public Schools seems to be making good on its promise to hire more school social workers. As of Nov. 2, the district had filled 573 school social worker positions, with about 25 vacancies remaining.

That’s up significantly from two years ago, prior to the pandemic, when the district had just 327 social workers — and some 20,000 more children.

Next year, under a new state law, Illinois public school students will be allowed to take five “mental health days” off from school per year.

That might seem like a small move. But it’s a step toward acknowledging the gravity of the problem.

“This [bill] was one way of letting students know that by removing that stigma, that it was OK for them to address their mental health and seek the help that they need,” as state Sen. Robert Martwick, a sponsor of the bill, said when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it.

“Getting them back to their routines, their friends, socialization are all important,” Belmonte said. “Have an open dialogue with kids about stress and the difficulty of coping with it.”

Adults, let’s keep that in mind.

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