Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day 2021: Addressing the Impact of the Pandemic

This year, Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (CMHAD) is May 7 and occurs in tandem with Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Both events are part of a greater national conversation on mental health awareness – May was established as National Mental Health Awareness month in 1949 by Mental Health America.

SAMHSA states that, “The purpose of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is to increase public awareness about the needs of children with serious mental illness (SMI) and severe emotional disturbance (SED) and their families, provide information on evidence-based practices, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment.”

The National Federation of Families takes a broader view on mental health with a goal of focusing on the mental well-being of all children at every stage of life, from infancy to adolescence and young adulthood. The 2021 theme focuses on their goal of taking a preventative stance on children’s mental health and “flip the script” so that mental healthcare is viewed through the same lens as physical health care, where “caring for mental health is a vital part of living health, fulfilling life.” The 2021 theme encompasses this goal with the motto,  “Flip the Script on Mental Health.”

Impact of the Pandemic

While the pandemic has provided many families more time together, the busy lives of parents balancing work without childcare has undoubtedly impacted stress levels in many households. A December 2020 study by the National Institute of Health concluded:

“Parent stress increased substantially during COVID-19 and has not returned to pre-COVID-19 levels… Furthermore, given the persistent and repeated demands of this pandemic, many families are likely experiencing chronic stress, which is concerning given the physiological and emotional consequences of chronically elevated stress.”

When their caregivers are stressed, children can become stressed as well. In fact, parenting stress is a known environmental risk factor that can harm both parents and children. The National Institute of Health states that parental stress, “…has been associated with numerous undesirable outcomes, including parent depression marital conflict, poorer physical health, less effective parenting and…increased child behavior problems.” The study further shows this transactional relationship to be bidirectional, where increased parental stress leads to increased behavior problems, which in turn leads to more parental stress. Healthy stress management techniques can be key to support both parents and children, lessening the negative impacts of stress and helping families avoid the consequences of toxic stress.

Impact on Education

School closures across the country have impacted countless American children. Researchers at Brown University project that typical academic year gains in learning outcomes are expected to fall anywhere from 20% to 50% behind a typical school year due to COVID-19 related closings.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation notes that COVID-19 has also highlighted the wide achievement gaps in society that disproportionally impact students living in poverty and families of color. For children, the impact of chronic stress can have devastating consequences on academic performance. The impact can be more intense with longer lasting consequences in marginalized families that lack the resources to remain resilient.

Impact on Mental Health

Children’s health and development can be adversely impacted by a global health crisis like COVID-19. One NIH study discussed this potentially severe impact on children’s mental health and further states, “Epidemics or pandemics, such as COVID-19, produce potential risks to child development due to the risk of illness, protective confinement, social isolation, and the increased stress level of parents and caregivers.”

As such, the role of parental stress management has a two-fold impact on children’s mental health. Not only does positive stress management have positive impacts on parents, but it interrupts the negative feedback loop that influences behavior problems in children while also role modeling resilience and positive attitudes on mental health influence how children will perceive and care for their own and other’s mental health across their lifespan.

As FFCMH sates, “Children and youth learn from their parents, caregivers, family members, teachers, doctors – the adults they are taught to respect and rely on. In these roles, we impact how children and youth think about and care for their own mental health and how they treat others who have mental health challenges.”

Interventions for Mental Health Professionals

Many parents are finding that services that were once provided in school and daycare settings are no longer available due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. One way mental health professionals can help supplement this loss in services is to provide parents with information on modifications to behavior or the environment that they can implement at home to support their children’s needs. One such example is our parent training on Applied Behavioral Analysis for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Text, Talk, Act was created under SAMHSA as an interactive mobile method to encourage teens to discuss mental health and get connected to relevant resources and local services. The American Psychological Association joins this initiative beginning on May 7 and continuing throughout the month of May. Teens can text APA to 89800 to engage in an activity around mental health.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has resources to help parents discuss mental health topics related to COVID. Additionally, the Child Mind Institute has help from experts navigating a myriad of topics, from remote learning to screen time concerns under quarantine.

Professionals can also advocate for their clients’ access to services, provide psychoeducation on resources for their community and get connected with local service providers in their state. The National Federation of Families has a wide range of involvement opportunities for parents and professionals as well as information on local affiliates that have a presence in all 50 states.

As we continue to evaluate how the pandemic will affect the mental health of children and families going forward, it’s never been more important for mental health professionals to advocate for their clients’ well-being. By continually seeking resources and supports for children and families, we can begin to “flip the script” on mental health care.

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Cecilia Stonebraker is the owner of Stonebraker Counseling Services and offers professional counseling via telehealth throughout North Carolina. She is a licensed clinical addiction specialist and a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate specializing in substance abuse, trauma, dual diagnosis, and group therapy.

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