The events of 2020 have affected individuals and families, our senior citizens, and our youth, profoundly affecting almost every human being worldwide.
A specific age group is most at risk of feeling the impact of 2020’s chaos and tumult for months and, dare I say, years to come. Children and teens are being affected beyond what the eye can see, and if history and research is any indication, we are about to experience a systemic mental health epidemic across America.
It is time for politicians, school board members, parents, and educators to wake up!
I have worked in the mental health field for many years. My expertise happens to be working with preadolescents, teens, and parents. With the explosion of social media alone due to the inability to attend school and work in person, I have seen the detrimental effects of the developing brain as it affects behavior, social awareness, relationships, and cognitive development. Social media bullying is on the rise, causing increased anxiety and higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation as well. Pew Research studies have found that almost 60% of teens and tweens online have been moderately to severely bullied via online social media platforms (Pew Research Center) during this pandemic. Now with COVID-19 regulations affecting this nation’s households, we have governors and educators determined to keep students unnecessarily locked down. This has opened the door to a plethora of issues as children are forced to be online up to six to ten hours a day, putting them at greater risk of online bullying and mental health issues.
These lockdown regulations force parents to navigate the educational highway, taking time out of their day, thus sacrificing their careers and personal time, causing severe undue stress on the entire household.
Children affected most are those in single-parent or grandparent homes, which make up nearly 35% of U.S. households (U.S. Census report, 2018);those with IEPs and special needs, with pre-existing mental or physical health issues; and those with previous substance, child, or domestic abuse issues.
If schools remain closed, millions of parents will struggle to maintain their livelihoods. In lower-income areas, we will continue to see children at risk of child abuse as social services are interrupted and CPS reporters (educators) are no longer able to be advocates. Case management and home visits have also been highly disrupted in the education system, and school closures eliminate this essential source of assistance for abused and neglected children.
With COVID-19 infectious rates being minimal in children, the fear of contracting the virus can no longer be considered a reason to keep schools closed. The stress of confinement, social isolation, and working from home is causing parents to feel overwhelmed. Children will feel the effects of their parent’s stress and begin to act out in unhealthy ways if the child has no outlet. Coping with self-harm and even suicide is quickly becoming our new reality (Revelette, 2020). Regular check-ins with your children are imperative.
Parents who work and have minor children make up almost 30% of the workforce. That means over 41 million families are dealing with educational issues, with almost 35% of them coming from single-parent households. Thirty percent of all working families have a potential caregiver at home, and 70%, over 23 million families, do not, and risk job loss, increased stress levels, and mental health issues if their child does not attend school (Brookings Analysis, 2020).
The National Academy of Sciences (2020) states that priority must be made for children K-12 to be able to return to full-time, in-class learning modalities. As a mental health professional who meets and regularly speaks with teens and tweens, I can tell you that the lack of face-to-face interaction and the increased social isolation are having a profound effect. From what I have experienced in counseling adolescents for over 20 years and then during this COVID-19 crisis, an education builds self-identification, social skills, a greater sense of self, and care and consideration for others in the community. Getting an in-person education is essential for children to thrive and develop, and thus all the above characteristics are necessary for a thriving society. Furthermore, I have found in my interaction with parents from various socioeconomic backgrounds and in interviewing educational experts and law enforcement personnel in the last five months evidence of a decline in mental health and self-worth with students and an increase in parental stress and juvenile delinquency.
If this continues, society will see a shift in the number of juvenile drug and alcohol use crimes committed, parental stress increase, potentially leading to emotional outbursts in children and teens, and a continued increase in self-harm and suicidal ideation. We are at a mental health crisis point in America.
In the last 30 days, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that one in four children under 18 have had suicidal thoughts, a greatly elevated number since COVID-19 reared its ugly head. In young adults, ages 18-24, an alarming 75% reported that they “are struggling” mentally.
In many other larger cities in states where schools have been limited or completely locked down due to COVID concerns, such as California, Oregon, and Illinois, state governmental health agencies are reporting up to 25% increases in actual suicide deaths within all age ranges. This is concerning.
The toxic mix of social isolation, economic stress, and pre-existing mental health and familial issues has quickly led to the dangerous levels of suicidal ideation and severe depression we are witnessing within our student population.
After 20 years working in the mental health field, I can confidently warn you of what is to come:
- Drug and alcohol addiction issues due to the inability to cope
- Domestic and child abuse increases
- Depression and anxiety due to student retention
- Mental and physical health issues for special needs and IEP/504 students due to lack of support
- PTSD and stress-related issues for those who are more susceptible to viewing COVID as a traumatic event
- Higher divorce rates due to economic issues which can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety within the family system
- Developmental and physical growth issues with students due to excessive use of social media and electronic devices and the stress it causes
The inability to allow children to attend schools in person is causing issues that in some cases may be reversible and, in many cases, are not. A San Diego State University study found that more than five hours of electronic device time in children can increase suicidal ideation by 71%. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine echoes this concern, stating that children interacting on social media sites instead of in-person more than 58 times per week are three times more susceptible to feeling socially outcast and isolated.
So, where does that leave us, and what can we do? Until we, as parents, educators, and caring adults, act on this crisis, we are going to see an entire generation full of mentally unstable individuals.
- Write, call, and email your politicians and demand schools be opened—even at a modified level.
- Call your school board and city council members.
- Parents, get your children outside and active, play board games with them, and ask them regularly how they are coping.
- Talk to your children and normalize their feelings and emotions, and tell them they are not alone.
- Pray for and with them.
- Get them involved in youth group or community activities—if everything is closed-down, start one at your house.
- Share this information with everyone you can.
My hope is that educators, parents, and politicians will wake up and realize how devastating COVID and these lockdowns have been on society—specifically on the youth of America. The mental health crisis we are about to see in the coming months and years will be devasting.
Get your kids involved in any way they can.
Get involved at the local, state, and even federal levels.
Our kid’s future depends on it.
No matter what, keep fighting the good fight for our youth and for the future of America.
Dr. Bridget Melson, MFT, Psy.D
Host of Diagnosing America