Managing Mental Health for Today’s Children

She was in tears. She was 16 years old. She had just told me she did not want to live anymore. She was in my office just 6 months earlier for a well visit when everything was reported as normal in her life. Informing her parents to take the child to the Emergency Department was a difficult task and one I had to approach with caution.

We languished and hibernated in the initial days of the pandemic with a sense of relief to be free from the fast pace of our work life and enjoyed the safety cocoon with our family. We binged on food and TV shows and forgot there were routines and physical activity needed for our well-being. We focused on surviving the pandemic. Children were socially isolated and trying to cope with online schooling. Frustrations grew as time progressed and our mental health has taken a toll on everyone this past year.

Young people are struggling most with their mental health. According to the Mental Health of America survey, where more than 1.5 million people were surveyed during the pandemic, the results are staggering. Some key take-aways:

  • 7% of youth in the U.S. have severe major depression, compared to 9.2% in last year’s data.
  • The proportion of youth (ages 11-17) who accessed mental health screening was 9% higher than the average in 2019.
  • Youth ages 11-17 have been more likely than any other age group to score for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Rates of suicidal ideation are highest among youth, especially LGBTQ+ youth. From January to September 2020, 77,470 youth reported experiencing frequent suicidal ideation, including 27,980 LGBTQ+ youth.

Below are a few tips to help all of us help our children through these challenging times.

Invite your child to speak about their feelings. Young children may not be able to express how they feel, and adolescents may not be forthcoming to initiate a conversation about their emotions with an adult Be gentle but persistent.  Don’t give up if they shut you out at first. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.

Recognize signs of stress in your child. In younger children they may show regression in their milestones and development. They may also be more fussy, start having feeding problems including poor appetite, stomachaches, poor sleep and separation anxiety.

Older children and teens stop showing interest in activities they once enjoyed, and they don’t replace their interests with new hobbies. Their grades are slipping, particularly in classes they enjoy. Changes in appearance, such as lack of basic personal hygiene (within reason, since many are doing slightly less grooming during this time at home).

Changes in behavior, such as stepping back from personal relationships. If your ordinarily outgoing teen shows little interest in texting or video chatting with their friends, for example, this might be cause for concern. Changes in eating pattern including avoiding meals or excessive eating.

Mood changes not usual for your child exhibited by constant irritability, anger and emotional outbursts leading to conflicts with friends and family.

Support your child at home. Focus on listening, not lecturing. Let your child know you are there for them and you love them. Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk.

Acknowledge their feelings. Simply acknowledging the pain and sadness they are experiencing can go a long way in making them feel understood and supported.

Your Child’s Pediatrician Can Help

Stay in touch with your pediatrician and schedule a telehealth or in-office visit if you have any concerns.  Your pediatrician can screen your child for depression and talk to them about anxiety and ways to cope with stress. They may talk to other family members who can be impacting the situation. It is important to ensure your teen has privacy to openly talk to the physician.

Pediatricians can also screen for suicide risk. If you are worried about your child, create a safe home environment by removing weapons and ammunition from the home and securing medications in a safe, locked cabinet.

Seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or texting the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘TALK’ to 741741. Reserve 9-1-1 for situations where self-harming actions are happening or are about to happen. In a non-crisis situation, talk with your pediatrician about any concerns you have about your child’s mental health.

Hoag Medical Group Pediatrics is here to support you and your child.  We invite you to call your pediatrician’s office if you have any questions or concerns.