It’s been one year since we first heard the phrase “COVID-19.” Since that time, we’ve all had to adjust to our new normal – wearing our face masks, washing our hands more frequently and social distancing wherever we go. While the global pandemic has been emotionally devastating for adults, it has been especially difficult for children and adolescents who are still trying to cope and adapt to these changes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns over mental health have grown tremendously. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health-related visits to the emergency room increased for children and teens from April through Oct. 2020, compared to the same time in 2019. The increase was 24 percent in kids ages 5 through 11 and 31 percent among children ages 12 to 17.
As a social worker in the emergency center (EC) at Texas Children’s, I’ve seen a significant spike in mental health-related visits over the past year. Many children come to the emergency center seeking care for mental health issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Our EC is often the first point of care for addressing these children’s mental health emergencies.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic is hitting children and adolescents hard. During this particular stage in their lives, children and teens are gaining autonomy and building their personal identity and independence. Socializing with peers is a critical component during this phase of development. Because of COVID-19 and social distancing, children feel isolated from their friends. For many, school is now virtual and access to social interactions with peers is limited. Extracurricular activities have been canceled or postponed. Unlike traditional graduations where students walk across stage to receive their hard-earned diploma, many ceremonies are being held virtually. And, for students who’ve returned to the classroom, wearing masks and staying six-feet apart from each other is an adjustment.
To help these families cope with the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, our team of licensed social workers serve as the backbone for providing mental health and psychosocial support at Texas Children’s. We spend time getting to know our patients and help them to identify stressors in order to get a better picture of what’s going on in their lives and how we can best help. A lot of the concerns we’ve seen recently are related to COVID-19. Patients tell us, “I don’t get to see my friends often.” or “My family is limiting my screen time.” Isolation and lack of extracurricular activities are impacting children significantly. During the height of the pandemic, I met with a patient who was thrilled to be on her school’s cheerleading team. But when COVID-19 hit, her world turned upside down. She no longer had this extracurricular activity to enjoy and she was no longer able to see her friends and teammates. This loss was a trigger for the mental health crisis she was now experiencing.
Our social work team provides emotional support and coping strategies for children and families. Additionally, we provide safety planning and connect families to mental health resources at Texas Children’s and in the community. As we continue navigating through the uncertainty of COVID-19, it’s important for parents to be aware of the signs their child may be struggling with their mental health in order to get them the help they need right away.
Common signs of mental health issues include:
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Changes in appetite
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- Isolation (always wants to be alone)
- Mood swings or changes in their normal behavior
- Difficulty sleeping
While we don’t know how long COVID-19 will last or when things will return to normal, below are some mental health tips to help parents and children as they navigate through this challenging time:
- Establish a routine (especially with virtual school). If your child is in virtual learning, work with your child to create normalcy in his or her daily routine. For instance, establish a time to wake up, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast or whatever your child needs to do to start the “school day.” Plan mini-breaks throughout the day and create a school work structure your child is familiar with.
- Encourage fun hobbies to keep kids social (at a safe distance). Besides hanging out with family and/or friends virtually via social media/virtual platforms, there are other ways to stay connected. Here is a link to several fun, socially distant activities to consider for your kids.
- Encourage socializing with peers their age. This is an important part of your child’s social development and it will help them reach other developmental milestones along the way. Even virtual socializing can be a good thing!
- Mental health check-ins: As your child adjusts to changes brought on by the pandemic, it’s important to have an open conversation with them about their mental health. Let them know their mental health is just as important as their physical health. Having these conversations with them will make them feel more comfortable talking to you rather than keeping things bottled up inside.
- Seek outside support (counseling, crisis hotlines): If your child needs additional support, there are several resources available including apps to help with mental health for tweens/teens, and here is a link to the Texas Youth Helpline that may be a helpful resource. However, if you have immediate concerns for your child’s safety, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.
Social workers are a critical part of our multidisciplinary team at Texas Children’s. Besides rendering support to families during the pandemic, we help patients cope with other life changes as well. As we celebrate Social Work Recognition Month, click here to learn more about how we support our patients.