The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just wreaking havoc on the physical health of those who contract the virus. It’s also taking a significant toll on the mental health of many people, whether they get COVID or not.
Research indicates that feelings of depression and anxiety as well as thoughts have suicide have increased over the past year as people struggle with the stress and uncertainty brought on by the global public health crisis.
“Everybody is struggling with what’s going on during the pandemic and that our natural support systems have been stretched to the limit or they’ve been cut off,” says licensed psychologist Joseph Bargione of Louisville.
Children are especially at risk during this challenging time. Their normal routines at school have been upended and day-to-day social interactions with family interrupted. Some may have experienced the death of a close relative or friend due to the virus.
Because of their young age, children haven’t yet developed the coping skills that would help steer them through all these changes, says Dr. Ruchita Agrawal, associate chief medical officer for Seven Counties Services.
“Their brains are not developed, the prefrontal cortex is not developed until late teenage [years],” says Agrawal. “So, this is a very tender age, and we need to talk about mental health for this age.”
Ways to Support Children with Anxiety or Grief
Even without the pandemic, Agrawal and Bargione say children may experience some routine, low-level anxiety, such as what they might feel around the first day of school.
“Anxiety is not always bad,” says Agrawal “Some anxiety we all get. It’s okay... It actually helps you focus and be productive.”
But when stress becomes overwhelming, children may exhibit behavioral changes.
“If you see that your child is more clingy, or your child is acting out more, or isolating, or may be having some physical problems, like maybe they’re talking about headaches,” Agrawal says. “It can present in so many different ways.”
At the first sign of such changes, Bargione recommends talking with the child.
“Make it where they can express their feelings,” says Bargione, who was a lead psychologist with Jefferson County Public Schools for 25 years. “You’re not going to pass judgment... [You’re] just a sounding board for that child and allow them to express their fears.”
If the youngster complains of physical pains, such as a headache or stomach ache, Bargione also encourages some specific follow-up questions: How long has the child had that pain? Where were they when they first noticed it? Is it worse at certain times?
“Be that detective to see [if] maybe it’s an environmental issue or it’s more of a physiological issue rather than a physical issue,” says Bargione.
When a child experiences the death of a family member, Bargione says that it is important for positive, caring adults to rally around the child to provide them with structure and support to help them adapt to the loss.
“Many times we’ll see other family members come to the aid of the child, or the teachers at the school will come to the aid of the child, or if you’re a person of faith, the people in the church will come and wrap their arms around the child,” says Bargione.
Another big change facing many children happens when they return to the classroom after months of virtual learning. Bargione suggests parents and teachers develop transition plans to help children, especially those who are anxious about going back to school, re-acclimate to in-person instruction. For example, he advises allowing the child to come to school the day before it opens to see their classroom, find their locker, and connect with a teacher who can support them.
While virtual instruction has been difficult for many students, Bargione says some children who fear going to school have benefitted from remote learning. He says school officials should consider ways to continue to offer a virtual option for students who learn better at home.
“We want to make sure a child has a pathway to success, whether it’s in person, which will happen for the vast majority of the young people,” says Bargione. “But there’s probably a small group of students where virtual learning may be the best pathway for them to be successful.”
Pandemic Also Affects Adult Mental Health
Agrawal says there has been a 25 to 50 percent increase in anxiety and depression among adults during the pandemic. To help respond to the increased mental health demands over the past year, Seven Counties Services launched virtual and telemedicine options for its clients in Jefferson, Oldham, Bullitt, Shelby, Spencer, Trimble, and Henry counties.
“It’s a huge change for us and for our patients,” says Agrawal, “but I’m so glad we got this opportunity to change and grow because otherwise we would not have been able to help our patients.”
The stress and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic can contribute to substance use or abuse among vulnerable individuals. Agrawal says Seven Counties also provides addiction treatment services.
“If you need treatment for substance use, we don’t need to be shy about it. It’s part of your mental health,” she says. “Addiction is actually a brain disorder, it’s not just a choice that somebody is making.”
The more people openly discuss issues of addiction, anxiety, and depression, the more these conditions can be normalized. As the stigma associated with mental health issues declines, Agrawal says she hopes more people, especially individuals of color, will seek the care they need.
“There’s nothing called ‘crazy.’ We need to get rid of this word,” she says. “This is a brain disorder, and you reach out for help.”
But Agrawal and Bargione acknowledge the mental health field lacks diversity among its practitioners.
“At Seven Counties we try to have as much diversity as possible,” says Agrawal. “But the truth of the matter is it’s really hard to find psychiatrists and therapists of color. So that has been a struggle.”
Bargione is a leader with the Bounce Coalition, which works with schools and social service organizations to help children, families, and communities build resiliency skills. He says ideally, a troubled child should be seen by a counselor or doctor who looks like them.
“If I’m a child of color, and my clinician or the psychiatrist or psychologist is a person of color also, then that might make it a little easier for me to feel more comfortable and to share some of the most personal thoughts that I have,” says Bargione.