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Children’s Mental Health in the Time of Coronavirus: New Challenges Need Creative Solutions

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the daily lives of individuals across the globe, children and youth are also grappling with the extreme changes it has brought. The mental health and well-being of the youngest members of our population have specific needs and challenges to address.

May 7, 2022 is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, led by SAMHSA to raise awareness around the efficacy of community-based mental health services for children and to demonstrate how these mental health services can improve resilience in young people. This year, the ability for our community members and clinicians to address the mental health challenges of children and promote resilience is more important than ever.

Children’s mental health and coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to the lives of children and youth across the world. An article from The Lancet reported in April 8, 2020 that 188 countries have suspended schools, placing over 1.5 billion young people out of education. Though schools in the U.S. have begun reopening, UNESCO still calculates the number of effected American learners at 58,510,836, from pre-primary through secondary schools. This disruption in routine is stressful for any child, but for those who depend on the school environment for food security, therapy services, or other social safety nets are now especially vulnerable.

Other scenarios are causing strain to the mental health of young people. Social distancing measures can result in isolation in abusive homes. Children whose parents have become unemployed due to the pandemic are now facing economic stressors. Some college students evacuating their dorms are now facing housing insecurity, while those who are graduating face an uncertain future as employment opportunities are in flux.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the long-term mental health consequences of pandemics on children and youth. Despite this, it is critical for those in children, youth, and family-serving organizations to recognize the signs of mental distress in this population and know how to mitigate the challenges the pandemic has brought.

Understanding the signs of mental illness in children and youth

Children and youth will express anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges in different ways. Their age range and development will also affect the way they respond to the challenges of the pandemic.

  • Infants and Young Toddlers, while not able to understand the details of the pandemic, will react to stress or tension in their caregivers. They may become more irritable, cry more than usual, or want to be held more often.
  • Preschool and Kindergarten Children may return to behaviors they have outgrown, such as toileting accidents or feeling frightened about being separated from caregivers. They may also have more tantrums or difficulty sleeping.
  • School-aged Children may feel sad, angry, or afraid, but their ability to express these feelings could vary. Some may focus on the details of the pandemic and want to talk about it all the time, while some may not want to talk at all. They may have trouble concentrating on tasks, which can affect their progress on schoolwork being done at home. There may also be some excessive irritation or crying, or unexplained headaches or body pain.
  • Preteens and Teenagers’ responses may vary. Some react to trauma by “acting out”; this could include drug use, reckless driving, or other forms of rebellion. Some may be afraid to leave the home even when it is safe to do so. They may withdraw from friends or avoid school work. Some may feel overwhelmed by their emotions and have difficulty expressing their feelings around the event. Assessing for the risk of self-harm or suicidal ideation is important for this age range.

Considerations for children and youth with special healthcare needs

Children and youth with disabilities or those who have special healthcare needs may feel especially vulnerable or stressed during this time. Children with respiratory concerns, such as asthma, or who need continuous use of a breathing machine may have stronger reactions to the threat of coronavirus.

Children who usually utilize special education in school are at more risk of experiencing a decline in mental wellbeing during the pandemic. For example, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may struggle with the change in routine. Children who rely on the supports of an IEP in school may have more difficulty receiving accessible education at home. Helping caregivers address these barriers and obtaining access to regular therapy sessions (such as speech or occupational therapy) via telehealth services can be beneficial.

The Child Mind Institute offers several helpful resources for families of children with special healthcare needs, as well as providers. For families who usually utilize ABA services for their children, Relias Academy has created an ABA Parent Training Plan that helps educate parents and caregivers on implementing ABA techniques at home.

What can we do to support children and youth?

It can be difficult for caregivers and providers to find the right resources to help children and youth understand the gravity of the pandemic in a way that will ease fears and not induce anxiety. Thankfully, there are a plethora of age-appropriate resources to help young people understand the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has several resources to help families and providers, including a free children’s booklet that describes what viruses are and how to “fight” them. The CDC also offers free children’s resources on how to cope after a disasters occurs. Even Sesame Street has created special content to help young children understand the coronavirus pandemic.

For adolescents and young adults, providing practical ways to cope with a caregiver’s loss of income, school disruptions, and other stressors is most beneficial. This NCTSN factsheet provides ways for this age group to help cope with hard times.

What can we do to support families?

Children react to what they see from the adults around them. If parents can deal with the coronavirus pandemic calmly and confidently, their children will feel a better sense of security.

Help parents feel better prepared to address the pandemic with their children. Provide accurate information to parents, making sure they understand the coronavirus and how to keep their family safe. Encourage parents to talk with other adults about their own fears or concerns before talking to their children, as this can help them appear calmer and more confident when they do speak to them.


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