Pandemic puts children’s mental health issues front and center

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Suzanne Krumpelman, counselor at St. Joseph’s School in Fayetteville, Arkansas, spoke to first-graders about friendship on Feb. 9, 2022. (CNS Photo by Arkansas Catholic Travis McAfee)

By Aprille Hanson Spivey

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Occasionally, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resumption of in-person instruction, St. Joseph School counselor Suzanne Krumpelman in Fayetteville has spoken to students to assess how they are doing. come out.

During an informal survey, Krumpelman asked how many students knew someone who died of COVID-19 or became seriously ill.

“Almost all the kids raised their hands,” she said. “And you know we just don’t think about it. There are children who have lost grandparents, uncles, cousins, friends who have marked their lives. They face many other difficult things. … Every child has been affected by this pandemic in one way or another.

In December, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a grim advisory regarding youth mental health.

While there was a mental health crisis among children before the pandemic shut down the world, the fact that one in five children aged 3 to 17 suffers from a mental, developmental, emotional or behavioral disorder , isolation, fear and uncertainty have amplified the problem.

“I think that’s where we all want people to be: ‘The kids are great, they’re doing well.’ They probably seem that way, but they’re not. You have to dig a little deeper,” Krumpelman said.

According to a September report from the Children’s Hospital Association, the rate of reported self-harm and suicide among children aged 5 to 17 was 45% higher in the first half of 2021 than in the same period in 2019. There was also a 14% increase in mental health emergencies in the same age group in the first two quarters of 2021 compared to 2019.

“I think parents definitely need to keep an eye on their kids. The stress level is very, very high for the kids right now,” Krumpelman told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.

“I’ve had to work with more kids than I’ve ever had in two years who are having panic attacks for the first time. … Kids, they kind of survive the moment and go with the moment,” she said, “and it takes a bit of time for the after effects to occur.

While adults may have understood why quarantine was necessary, young children may not have. Suddenly, they were not allowed to see friends, go to school, church or elsewhere for fear of catching a potentially deadly virus, in addition to wearing masks and taking other safety precautions. There was no more routine.

Msgr. Jack Harris, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Morrilton, Arkansas, and trained crisis counselor, said the biggest threat to mental health he has seen among his students at the parish school is isolation and loneliness resulting from virtual learning and quarantine.

“School is a traumatic thing, to begin with; it’s hard. It really is; the requests, the requirements are difficult to satisfy. If you’re having trouble with it, it’s trauma,” he said. “These things can really create difficulties. Add that to trying to handle this on your own or virtually.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterizes anxiety in children as not going beyond certain fears or worries or when those worries “interfere with school, home, or play activities.”

Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness can indicate depression. Other indicators include not wanting to do fun activities, changes in eating or sleeping habits, changes in energy level from tired to restless, difficulty paying attention, feelings of guilt, worthlessness or uselessness, and self-harming or self-destructive behaviors.

Krumpelman said some signs may not be so obvious in determining if a child has anxiety, depending on their age.

“The little ones, a lot of times they’re just really active, sometimes it feels like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). They’re quick to get angry; they’re irritable,” she said .

Other signs for young children may be difficulty concentrating, dreams or nightmares, wanting to sleep with their parents at night, being clingy, overreacting or crying obsessively. , stomach aches and frequent trips to the school nurse.

“I just need to go to the bathroom often in class. It’s their way of getting out of a situation” that could make them anxious, Krumpelman said.

Older children and teens can also experience these things, but older ones usually exhibit constant worrying and extremes – sleeping too much or too little, having trouble concentrating, spending too much time with others, or always wanting to be. alone and fighting for things they didn’t have before.

”What if it happens, what if it happens.’ They might start worrying about their family, mom or dad about (bad) weather which (usually) wouldn’t be a big concern for them and all of a sudden they worry about things like that,” Krumpelman said. .

Being overly critical of yourself, saying things like “Oh, I can’t do anything right, nobody loves me” can be an indicator, she added.

While every child is different, Krumpelman said, in his experience, boys don’t tend to talk about their feelings, but act out more with negative behaviors.

“The girls will tell you a bit more. But it’s not something kids can put into words,” she said.

Krumpelman suggests parents try talking to their children, but they may not be open to sharing.

At this point, reach out to teachers or other adults in their lives to see if they’ve noticed any changes, she suggested. If a pattern of behavior continues for weeks or if things escalate, especially in cases of self-harm or suicidal comments, a counselor should get involved.

From a pastoral point of view, it is about being present. Msgr. Harris greets students as they arrive at school, asking questions about a canceled game or activity, a tough test, or any challenge they might face.

“Being out there and doing that is very important. That kind of being informal on their turf, showing up there when you can be somewhere else, but you’re not,” he said.

Schools can also provide resources for parents. In the fall of 2021, Our Lady of the Holy Souls School in Little Rock hosted a two-night screening of the 2017 documentary “Angst” about anxiety and a panel discussion. The school has seen “increased levels of children talking about self-harm” and difficulty returning to campus after virtual learning, principal Amber Bagby said.

“I just feel like trauma is trauma no matter where you are. It definitely comes across differently than some of the public schools I was in, but the feelings are all the same,” said Bagby: “There’s a misconception I think a lot of people have with our private schools that our babies are exempt from some of these things.”

“I think we face a bit of this stigma of ‘I’m suffering from anxiety or a panic attack, I have to be the only person.’ It’s important for kids to know (that) everyone is hurting right now,” Krumpelman said.

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