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Local View: Children are our future; they need mental health support now

For preschool and school-age children, studies have shown that they are most affected by the lack of interaction with their peers and extended family.

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Monte Wolverton/Cagle Cartoons

Exhausting. Lost. Chaotic.
Those are the top three words Washington Post received when they asked people to write in words that described the year 2020.

What comes to mind when you think of the year 2020? It was an uncertain time when nobody knew if it was going to be a two-week vacation or if we would ever be able to go out in public normally again. This was a substantial change for all kinds of people, including one population in particular, children. The youth thrive on social interactions, routine, security and love. When they were sent home and switched to online school, it flipped their entire world upside down.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, we have seen increased levels of mental illness across every demographic, especially youth. With most of their socialization and their normal daily routines neutralized, symptoms of depression and anxiety — including sadness, irritability, and negative thoughts — have increased. These levels of stress and anxiety create a toxic mindset for youth, especially if they have a lack of support at home. According to a study published in the journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development, there is a strong relationship between the mental health of caregivers and that of their children. This ripple effect creates a barrier in child-parent relationships.

Another contributing factor to the decline in children’s mental health during the pandemic is the absence of the social interaction of going to school. One of the main reasons that this impact is so severe is because school is a central place for children’s social interactions. A study showed that while children enjoyed having more free time at home, they would rather be at school with their friends. There is a substantial deficit in social contact since the closings of school, despite having access to virtual communication.

In other research, parents have expressed concern over their children’s mental health due to social isolation. Several parents in a study done by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated that they cared more about the behavioral effects of isolation than their child’s academic progress — noting behavioral changes like frustration, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

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... I was actually getting worried about him, like his mental health at 6 years of age. He didn’t want to go out and he got very into himself because he wasn’t out with friends,” said one parent in that study.

Initial studies on mental health in children during the COVID-19 pandemic found that there are increased rates of anxiety and depression in school-age children. For preschool and school-age children, studies have shown that they are most affected by the lack of interaction with their peers and extended family. Because of this lack of interaction, social development is stunted in younger children, resulting in mental disorders. They lack the ability to converse with others normally and thus feel depressed or anxious because of it.

Something that has been found through research on parent-child relationships is that the closer a bond they have, the less stress-related symptoms were found. Supportive parenting, ensuring safety, and having discussions about the pandemic can help lower a child’s risk to developing mental health issues during these unprecedented times. As caregivers to children, it is our responsibility to help them express their emotions in a safe environment and positive way. Now more than ever they need our guidance and protection.

The majority of children in an interview-based study said that the main reason they look forward to going back to school is to see their friends, teachers and support staff. These relationships are crucial to the social development and support of our children; they view peers as people who they can have fun with and relate to. Young children have been made aware of how important their social interactions are, saying that their peer relationships cannot be replaced.

We urge those who are responsible for children to have open discussions about what is going on in the world and provide a place of safety for them through these times. Having such a place for young people in a vulnerable time will act as a cushion against further mental health issues, as well as enhance your relationship with them. Allow them to ask questions and express concerns without judgment or fear of saying the wrong thing. We are all struggling to understand what’s happening and our children can feel it.

Another study focused on what caregivers have noticed since the closing of schools in Chicago, Illinois. They found that most observed an increased probability in child mental health issues along with a decrease in positive adjustment characteristics. After enduring such uncertain times and more isolation than they have ever known, children are left with confusion, anxiety and depressive symptoms. It is essential to look into the children you care for, ask them about any big feelings they are having, and reach out for help if needed.

At this time, it is important that resources are widely available for you and them. Whether this is an educational seminar on mental health for students at a school, primary intervention providing support to those who are currently experiencing a mental health crisis, or a support group for caregivers. This is a crucial time to intervene before the issues grow larger, we advise you to reach out to your community about what they can offer for your children and the children around you.

The entire world has felt the effects of COVID-19 in many different ways. We believe that children and adolescents have felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety and loneliness since being removed from schools and daily activities. We hope that you were able to learn more about the specific ways that your children’s lives have shifted and that you will take action to help in the healing process. Help our children experience less exhaustion, chaos and loss to bring them back to what childhood is supposed to be: exciting, peaceful and happy.

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Madeline Belisle is a sophomore at UMD studying psychology with plans to go into clinical mental health counseling for children and adolescents. 

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Madeline Belisle

Hope Coleman is a junior majoring in psychology at UMD and is planning on pursuing a career in clinical therapy. 

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Hope Coleman

Emma Springborg is a junior studying psychology with plans to go into clinical practice after grad school. 

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Emma Springborg

Lauren Saba is a sophomore at UMD double majoring in criminology and social work with plans to aid adolescents in aging out of the foster care system.

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Lauren Saba

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