RICHMOND, Va. — The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll on children's mental health, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). CBS 6 wants to be a resource for parents and kids in our community facing these challenges.
In an effort to explore this issue and identify some of the specific challenges children are facing, we assembled a small group of mental health professionals and community members who have seen the impact firsthand. Click here to watch the full roundtable discussion.
So how do we show this issue to lawmakers?
In the next installment in this series of "Helping Kids in Crisis" stories, we'll look at that and how current services and resources are, or perhaps are not, meeting the needs of children.
Dr. Sandy Henderson is a Licensed Clinical Child Psychologist in Henrico County.
Charnessa "Charlie" Pleasant is a Clinical Social Worker and Therapist in Richmond.
Christina Rawls-Dolin is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Richmond.
Patricia Godsey of Chesterfield lost her daughter to a drug overdose in January 2021.
Charles Wilson of Richmond is the Executive Director of United Communities Against Crime.
For different reasons and from different perspectives and circumstances, all have an interest in the health and well-being of children.
Dr. Henderson said, right now, the level at which youth have been in mental distress is the greatest she's seen in her entire career.
"It's been quite a pandemic experience. I went from working three days a week to five, to every day a week, including Saturday and Sunday. Kids are feeling it in their bodies and it's distracting them from their learning and from their social relationships and from their behavior. It's impacting all levels of development in a negative way. So, we're at a crisis point, now's the time to do something and to change something," Henderson said.
Richmond Schools recently saw dismal results in a state education assessment showing almost two thirds of Richmond Public Schools students in grades 3 through 8 are falling behind.
After a year plus of learning at home and disruptions in routine and structure, education is just one area where the mental health decline among kids and teens is exposed.
The AAP says children continue to deal with fear, grief, and uncertainty, and rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, and loneliness have soared.
These were concerns before the pandemic, but the ongoing public health emergency has exacerbated them.
Pleasant said, without realizing it, parents could be making the situation worse.
She said sometimes parents are dismissive when children voice concerns or try to express themselves. In her practice, she said children have experienced adults comparing their issues or obligations to a child's concerns making them feel their stressors are minor and not to taken seriously.
Many times, the comments are said in jest or in passing but can still have a profound effect on a child.
"It's a huge invalidation," said Pleasant.
When kids don't feel heard that can lead to harmful behaviors manifesting in many ways up to and including self-harm, according to experts.
According to the Children's Hospital Association, in the first six months of 2021, children's hospitals across the country reported a 45% increase in the number of self-injury and suicide cases in five to 17-year-olds compared to the same period in 2019.
According to the CDC, in early 2021 there was nearly a 4% increase in suspected suicide attempt emergency room visits among boys 12-17 compared to the same period in 2019. For girls, it was a more than 50% jump. Experts agree social media plays a role. Young girls may suffer from low self-esteem, body image issues, even eating disorders trying to achieve what they see online.
"I actually address this almost every single person who comes into my office, parents are unsure how to just start to control their children's usage," said Henderson.
Henderson said there are no solid, uniform guidelines or recommendations for families to follow on this issue and families are addressing it individually in their own homes to varying degrees of restriction or access.
Another issue, especially for children of color is the reality of racism and racial prejudice. In their youth mental health crisis declaration, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children's Hospital Association said the ongoing struggle for racial justice is inextricably tied to the worsening mental health crisis.
Collectively the groups said, "... the inequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color." Pleasant says that may be hard to pinpoint for younger children.
"I don't think that they have the language, but I think that they can always trust what they feel," Pleasant said. "When we talk about whether we should have this conversation with them, I think the conversation is being had, it's even inside of their bodies, that they know something is wrong. It's very intuitive. It's as you matriculate, and you're exposed, and you get more language in your vocabulary, and all of those things, then you begin to start putting those pieces together."
Other factors contributing to worsening mental health include kids and teens who may be struggling with their sexuality, bullying, home environment, and gun violence in neighborhoods or at school.
Dr. Henderson said, and others in the room agreed, the level of learning is impeded when children worried about their everyday safety. The group agrees that there are not enough services or mental health workers to support children in need.
"We have to have boots on the ground. If boots are not on the ground the gaps will not be filled," Wilson said.
However, perhaps most importantly, government funding is lacking.
An increase in government funding to ensure all families can access mental health services is top on a list of several actions the AAP and other groups are urging policymakers to undertake.
"It's kind of like out of sight out of mind. I can't see mental health so we're not going to invest in this," said Rawls-Dolin.