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Mental Health Needs of Children and Youth Escalate During COVID-19 Era

Education Policy Brief #69 | By: Yelena Korshunov | February 9, 2022

Header photo taken from: TBA

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Policy Summary

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody said that Greg was an exceptional basketball player. He was a leader of his middle school basketball team. He shot a basketball at the school court with his friends every single day after class, unless it was pouring rain. When the COVID-19 tsunami came, Greg had to quarantine, as did all of his friends. Both Greg’s parents lost their jobs and struggled to pay daily expenses. Though unemployment and economic impact payments were a great support for the family, their dinners became modest.

Greg spent time mostly in his room chatting with friends, attending remote lessons, and playing video games. There was no basketball anymore – playgrounds and courts were shut then. Greg’s parents stayed home day by day watching the news on TV. And through the closed door of his room Greg heard tensive voices of TV reporters speaking about COVID cases, ventilators, and deaths. Greg didn’t notice the moment when a sticky fear started to shadow him. One day his mom opened Greg’s door calling him for dinner. Greg jumped up from his chair and slammed the door. “Don’t enter my room! No one will enter my room anymore! Never! Just leave your dinner near my door!”

According to the US Department of Education report — Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, and Mental Health Needs —emergency department visits related to mental health increased 24% for 5–11-year-olds and 31% for 12–17-year-olds between January and October 2020.  Between March and June of 2020, more than 25% of American parents reported that their child experienced declines in mental health and 14% reported increases in behavior problems. In a survey conducted in April and May 2020, one in four youth of ages 13–19 reported an increase in sleep loss due to worry, feeling unhappy or depressed, feeling constantly under strain, and loss of confidence in themselves. A CDC report found one quarter of respondents ages 18–24 had contemplated suicide in the 30 days prior to completing the survey.

Many young people continue to struggle with mental health challenges even upon return to in-person learning. They exhibit poor participation, academic challenges, and behaviors. In young children, mental health issues refer to the developing child’s ability to form relationships with peers and adults, handle and express emotions, explore the environment, and learn. Researchers have found that all children’s experiences, even in infancy, directly affect their social, emotional, and behavioral development.

Policy Analysis

Researchers and educators are developing tools that will rapidly meet the needs of kids and youth who experience mental health issues during the pandemic. Their strategies can be applied, not just to COVID-19 behavioral issues, but to help meet the mental health needs of all children.

For example, supporting students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development at early ages may prevent the need for long-term services and continuous therapy. Efficient therapists apply strategies that parents and caregivers are also encouraged to use for supporting young kids’ proper social-emotional development. Some of these strategies are listening to a child actively and empathetically, speaking with a calm voice, making yourself available when a child wants to talk to you or interact with you (e.g., play, walk, cook together), helping child to understand a consequence of behavior, establishing rules, modeling positive talk and adequate reaction to unpleasant issues, teaching a child to express frustration by words instead of crying or having behavior.

Preventative strategies should also be a priority. School counselors, psychologists, social workers, teachers, and school leaders need to be especially farsighted and extremely attentive to children’s and students’ behavioral change, attitude, and performance.  Schools should integrate social-emotional learning in a curriculum, train staff to recognize mental health indicators and properly react to students’ behavior and emotional misbalance, review discipline policy to ensure equity, have zero tolerance for bullying, be culturally responsive, build safe and supportive environment sin the school building, and extend extracurricular activities to meet interests of diverse students’ population. 

Photo taken from: U.S. Department of Education

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Parents and caregivers can prevent kids’ mental health issues by spending time and enjoying activities together, expressing sincere interest in children’s life and hobbies, welcoming children’s friends and monitoring internet interactions, communicating openly and honestly, discussing family plans and values together, supervising children to facilitate healthy decision making, being aware about child’s school life, and being engaged in school activities. 

Averting mental health cases is more efficient than long-term therapeutic processes for already existing mental health issues.

The pandemic has highlighted alarming trends in mental health, and without increasing the number of high-quality mental health services, the increased mental health needs of children and youth will not be met. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 13–22% of school-aged youth experienced a mental health challenge.

Today, schools returning to in-person learning have new resources in the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ARP ESSER) to support their hard work.  

ARP ESSER resources are aimed at increasing the number of social workers, school counselors, school nurses, and school psychologists available to support students. 

As President Biden has stated, we have an opportunity to “build back better.” One of the ways to build back better is to integrate the current research and evidence on the importance of prevention and intervention practices to address the mental health needs of children and youth.

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