Isolation, depression: Children seeking mental health help in Henrico spikes amid pandemic

Posted at 7:48 AM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 12:29:50-05

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Watching a video about the French Revolution, Kyleigh Fannin struggles to interpret what she is supposed to be learning.

The pandemic has forced the Glen Allen High School ninth-grade student into virtual learning since March.

Fannin, 14, said much of her new form of schooling consists of watching videos and trying to stay focused.

"Tests and quizzes started to get harder, just a bunch of things started to go downhill I feel like," Fannin said.

Fannin's mother, Jennifer Farmer, said things really started to spiral in the fall.

"She's never had Fs or Ds and now we have several," Farmer said. "She just wasn't getting up out of bed, her demeanor was different, she had a different attitude, just not happy, sad, not engaged, shut in her room a lot."

Fannin started exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression.

"There was no motivation to do anything," Fannin said. "I just knew once I couldn't see my friends and all this stuff that everything just started. I was just sitting in my room because there is nothing else to do, and it just became an everyday thing."

Her virtual learning buddy Ripley Villa began to feel the same.

"Kind of numb, you don't want to do anything, you want to sit there until it's over because you're realizing there is not really anything you can do to fix it," Ripley said.

Both said they felt out of control, so their moms took action.

"We've had to explore some options we've never really had to do before, counseling, I collaborated with her pediatrician, kind of seeing is anybody else going through this? My kid doesn't seem like herself anymore, I lost a big piece of her," Farmer said.

Fannin and Ripley now see counselors and take medications for anxiety and depression, all so they can survive virtual school.

"We really saw a difference, she's getting up at 7:30, coming downstairs, being with the family," Farmer said.

A County-wide Issue

Similar stories can be heard all over Henrico County, where data from the county's Mental Health and Developmental Services showed a nearly 25 percent increase in the number of kids receiving services between July and November 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.

"The reason that the number of youth served has increased is that fewer have been discharged from services," Daniel Rigsby, the Director of Clinical and Prevention Services for Henrico Area Mental Health & Developmental Services, said. "There are multiple reasons for decreased discharges."

Those reasons, he said, include:

  • It is easier for many families to participate in services via telehealth or telephone so they stay engaged longer
  • The increased stress from the pandemic has made it more difficult for some youth to stabilize and they have required longer periods of treatment
  • Some other services that youth may have received have also been impacted by the pandemic and may not be an option as part of a discharge plan (afterschool programs, therapeutic day treatment, etc.)

"COVID has stressed a lot of families and children these days with virtual school," Dr. Randy Geldreich, the head of the Pediatric Emergency Department at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Henrico, said. "I just believe less social interaction has occurred as a result, and more isolation."

Dr. Geldreich said St. Mary's is seeing more kids coming in with mental health issues since COVID-19 began.

"They may come in because of panic attacks related to anxiety, or they may come in as a result of not sleeping well at night and simply being quite anxious," Geldreich said.

His team assesses the children and decides if they can go home with a list of resources to help them, or if they need inpatient psychiatric care.

"At Bon Secours St. Marys we do not have inpatient psychiatry so we have to transfer them to other facilities," Geldreich said.

It's not a new problem, but finding a bed can take hours or even days, and Dr. Geldreich said the increasing number of kids in need of help makes the situation worse.

"The wait could be the same day to several days, it could be four to five days," Geldreich said.

Fannin and Villa did not need that level of care, but both said they would feel better if they were allowed to be in school full time.

"When this first started, a bunch of my friends were depressed and a lot still are, all of them want to go back just to have that interaction with their friends," Fannin said.

"I think opening up the schools just as an option would help so many people in so many ways," Ripley added.

Jennifer Farmer just wishes Henrico families who want to send their middle and high schoolers back had that option now as opposed to having to wait until February.

"I would send her back to full-time school tomorrow if they told me it was open," Farmer said. "We are creating a huge inequity, families that can afford to send their kids to private schools are in school getting all the things our kids are missing out on because we don't have a choice."

We checked with Chesterfield and Richmond to find out if more kids are seeking out mental health services during the pandemic in those communities.

In Chesterfield, the number of kids seeking support through their Community Services Board actually dropped when the pandemic began, and has continued to decrease.

A spokesperson said the schools are a major referral source for the CSB, and it is certainly possible that the lack of in-person contact with youth has impacted referrals.

However, they added that the youth they are serving are reporting a significant amount of distress, and have higher needs for care than they have seen in the past.

In the City of Richmond, the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority said fewer kids are requesting mental health services during the pandemic, but RBHA believes that is because many of the services they have offered within Richmond Public Schools for years have been curtailed or altered due to virtual learning.

The Chief Operating Officer for RBHA said they are working closely with RPS to identify youth who need services, and they are educating school personnel about their services.

Henrico County Public Schools were supposed to open up in-person learning for elementary school students in late January, and middle and high school students in early February, but on Tuesday they announced that they are having to push back their "reopening" date because they need to use their school nurses to vaccinate their staff.

In an email sent to parents, they said it was unclear when they would be able to offer parents the choice to send their kids back for in-person learning.

"I humbly ask for patience and forgiveness, particularly from our educators who are eager to return to in-person learning, as well as from our families who enthusiastically opted to return their students to our schools and showed tremendous confidence in our health-risk mitigation planning. I share your heartache and frustration over the continuous delays to our timelines, and I know how important it is for our students to have access to in-person learning. However, in light of this new phase in our battle against coronavirus, I know that we are choosing the right path forward for our employees, our students and our community," Henrico Superintendent Dr. Amy Cashwell said in her email to parents and staff.

Virginia's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. James Lane, sent us the following statement about the problem, and what the state is doing to try to address it:

"The isolation experienced by students cut off from in-person interaction with friends, classmates and teachers is resulting in an increase in students and families facing mental health issues, both here in Virginia and nationwide. And while our schools and teachers have made amazing strides in virtual instruction and providing support services since the beginning of the pandemic, there is no substitute for daily, in-person contact between students and caring adults sensitive to their academic and social and emotional needs. The Virginia Department of Education continues to support divisions as they work to bring students back to school safely and support their academic and social emotional needs. This has included dedicating some of Virginia's federal funding specifically for social emotional and mental health supports."

For more information about how to help your kids cope during this difficult time, the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU put together a list of resources here: