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Children's mental health declared a national emergency — what parents need to know

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Amid the stress, isolation, uncertainty, fear, and grief that many have experienced during the pandemic, the U.S. health care system has seen a sharp rise in mental health concerns among children — and health experts are sounding the alarm.

On Dec. 7, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a public health advisory that warned of a crisis among youth. This followed a joint statement in October in which the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children's Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children's mental health.

"Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real, and they are widespread," Murthy wrote. "But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable."

Since the pandemic began, "rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased," wrote Murthy. "Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms."

A father sits next to a child who sits on the floor with head buried into crossed arms.
Children's organizations have declared a national mental health crisis in kids. (Photo: Getty Images)

In addition, "negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability — associated with conditions such as ADHD — appear to have moderately increased," he said.

Murthy also called out another "concerning" trend: In early 2021, U.S. emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts soared by nearly 51 percent among girls 12 to 17 and increased by nearly 4 percent among adolescent boys, compared to the same time period in early 2019.

For many parents, the pandemic era might be the first time they've ever coped with mental health struggles arising in their children. Complicating this situation is a lack of access to mental health resources. A September survey commissioned by DotCom Therapy, a provider of pediatric telehealth services, found only half of U.S. parents or guardians of kids under 18 were able to get the mental health care they were seeking for their children.

"This is pretty frank, but at this point, our behavioral health system is not equipped to meet the needs of families," said Eileen Twohy, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children's Hospital.

So what's a parent to do if their child is showing signs of depression, anxiety or another type of mental health distress? The simple answer: Get help as soon as possible.

"So often, parents and caregivers don't know where to start, as supporting a child with mental health difficulties can be overwhelming and scary," said licensed clinical social worker Michaela Landry, a clinical manager at DotCom Therapy.

Twohy says seeking help might involve a visit to a pediatrician, family physician or another primary care provider, or a chat with a health care worker at your kid's school. Landry says making an appointment with a mental health therapist is another option.

If your child is threatening to harm themselves or other people, immediately call a crisis hotline (such as the American Society for Suicide Prevention, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Crisis Text Line) or head to an ER, Twohy recommended. Other organizations recommend calling 911 immediately.

A health care professional can determine the right course of treatment for your child. Treatment may include therapy or prescription medication, or a combination of the two.

Landry says signs of mental health trouble to watch for in children include:

  • Behavioral changes that interrupt their day-to-day life

  • Lingering sadness

  • Irritability

  • Isolation from family and friends

  • Difficulty with sleeping

  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite

  • Drastic changes in mood

  • Trouble focusing on tasks

  • Shifts in academic performance

  • Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, body aches and stomach pain

Parents can embrace a number of approaches to help children who are dealing with mental health issues. For instance, they can start by encouraging their stressed-out kids to get an adequate amount of sleep (which affects kids' mental health), engage in daily physical activity (which experts say helps reduce levels of stress and depression), and eat healthy food (research shows that consuming more vegetables and fruits is associated with better mental well-being in kids).

Twohy advised that parents should be "really straightforward and open" when inquiring about their kids' mental health. For instance, it's OK to ask a child whether they've harbored thoughts about self-harm if you suspect that's the case, she said.

In addition, Twohy suggested carving out short periods of time with your kids for low-key, fun activities like playing video or board games, tackling an art project, or watching YouTube videos together. In these situations, it can be easier to start a dialogue without simply peppering your kids with questions.

It's also important for parents to talk with their kids about their own emotions and mental health. "Normalizing the experience of tough emotions and normalizing that sometimes we're having a hard time with our mental health is really important for families to work on," Twohy said.

Twohy emphasized that parents should carefully observe their kids' behavior to pick up on any signs of mental health concerns and get them the help they need. "It's important to remember that children are resilient, that most people who go through difficult or traumatic events like the ones that people have been through in the past ... don't develop a mental health disorder," Twohy said.

It's a statement echoed by Murthy: "Many young people are resilient, able to bounce back from difficult experiences such as stress, adversity, and trauma."

Twohy went on to say that "children and adolescents had some pretty significant mental health needs even before the pandemic. I think the pandemic is highlighting for us some needs that really have been around for a long time and have been increasing for a long time."

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

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