Child and adolescent mental health concerns are at a crisis level. According to the World Health Organization, the number of children and adolescents who suffer from a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit/hyper activity disorder (ADHD) is 1 in 6, and the number is definitely on the rise. This mental health situation is not confined to any geographic area or social status, although children from poorer families seem to be at greater risk, with hospital after hospital reporting they are experiencing huge increases in the number of children and adolescents seeking treatment for mental health disorders.
Many journalists and health organizations are writing about the pandemic and how that has impacted kids. The pandemic alone would have presented serious challenges for any human being, but it has taken a particularly large toll on the development of our children. To go a step further, add in the myriad of events taking place around the world, and we find a Tsunami of challenges tugging at everyone’s mental health. However, I find a silver lining in this awful consequence, because I believe that it has pushed the conversation about mental health issues right through the roof. There are so many individuals being affected by mental health challenges that society can no longer ignore the importance of mental health. Today’s world is simply fraught with events that are difficult to intellectually and emotionally process.
Having to quarantine, wear a mask, knowing that large numbers of people are getting very sick from Covid-19, and that huge numbers of people are dying from Covid-19 are all reasons for precipitating anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. But at the same time our world has been overwhelmed by so many more events happening all around us. Hateful speech, racism, mean-spirited politics, and wars surround us, including our children, every day. We, as adults, can barely protect ourselves from the mental traumas we see and hear, which makes it even harder to protect our children from all the negative events. It is simply not possible to put a bubble around our kids to make sure they never hear a troubling conversation or comment, or a news report on television, or a radio broadcast, or read a newspaper article, or see the horrible pictures of a war scene. And all these words and pictures take away from the safety that should be childhood.
So, more children and adolescents are in the throes of a different kind of pandemic, a mental health pandemic. The need for help is rising, and there are simply not enough pediatric psychologists available for the number of children and adolescents who need them. Although the number of children and adolescents who have needed health care has been rising for some time, the pandemic threw the whole balance of need versus supply of pediatric therapists out of kilter. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have together declared an emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
Many children who have been forced to quarantine at home for long periods of time were exposed to excessive quarreling, abuse, and violence, and witnessed more substance misuse by adults. They were prevented from interaction with their peers, which caused many children and adolescents to forget how to interact with their peers and also prevented them from having a needed social setting in which to grow their social skills. Now that children are returning to in-person school settings, there is more than the usual “acting out” in class, and teachers, acting as ‘first responders,” are asking for and receiving more guidance from outside professionals regarding how to recognize signs of trauma and other negative psychological behavior in children and adolescents. Hopefully, with this guidance, the educational staff will be able to help their students find help for emotional or mental health problems. We are also seeing greater government funding that enables our schools to hire temporary health professionals, including mental health professionals. But we need these health care professionals to be permanent additions to the staff caring for our children. Healthy children make healthy adults, which makes for a healthier society. To that end, the United States Congress is working on passing new funding legislation that would make those temporary positions in our health care system permanent, as well as continuing to fund the Student Mental Health Helpline Act. That Act, first introduced in September 2021, needs to be renewed. When that hopefully occurs, the law will authorize grants to agencies that are primarily responsible for public health or education to develop and maintain student mental health and safety helplines for children who are facing challenges with abuse, bullying, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and related issues.
The federal government is addressing the mental health crisis, but it needs to move faster in getting the allocated money out to the people who will use it to make a difference in the mental health of our children and teens.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health