COVID increasingly affecting kids’ mental health, social skills, local health expert say



The coronavirus pandemic has had an affect on most everyone’s mental health and school counselors and doctors said they are seeing this increasingly in children.

“It’s been a tough year,” said Jennifer Augustine, a seventh-grade counselor at Troy Junior High. Augustine and other counselors said they are seeing more students who have anxiety around the unknowns of the pandemic.

“They don’t know what will happen week to week,” Augustine said. “Just never knowing what the week is going to look like. Will we be hybrid? Will we be remote?”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, four in 10 adults in the United States have reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms during the pandemic. And doctors said they believe it’s worse in children.

A national poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital reported that 46% of parents say their teen had shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

Troy City Schools have been back with in-person instruction since January. Augustine said students in the Miami County district told her when they were in online instruction they were experiencing a lack of motivation and feeling overwhelmed and frustrated,

“I never would have realized how impactful online schooling would be for kids,” Augustine said. “I did a lot of my college online. And I just got into a rhythm and I got into the system. I never really put myself in 12- or 13-year-old’s shoes to recognize that for them it’s just so hard.”

Kelly Leganik, the eighth-grade counselor at Troy Junior High, said time management and routine are vague concepts for kids and it is difficult to teach them to organize their day while they are learning at home with a parent working there and other distractions.

These are some of the things causing students to be more anxious.

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Dr. Erin Webster, a pediatric psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital, said globally mental health professionals are seeing an increase in depression and anxiety.

“Kids thrive on certainty and structure,” Webster said.

Many kids’ routines have been disrupted or changed, also leading to a change in sleep patterns. Less sleep equals a worse mood for many kids, Webster said. There has also been an uptick in kids having suicide ideation, or thinking things like “it would be better if I wasn’t here,” or “I’m tired of feeling this way,” Webster said. Even though these thoughts can be fleeting, they can be concerning.

Depression and anxiety

Dr. Michael Barrow, a doctor with Premier Health Family Care, said the two most common issues he sees in children and adolescents are depression and anxiety related to the pandemic.

“Kids are pretty social, and if they’re not able to get out and actually be with their friends they start to kind of get used to being at home. Now we’re starting to see some kids having some difficulty with social interactions,” Barrow said. “You know we’ve meant for it to be physical distancing, but unfortunately for a lot of kids that ends up being a social distancing. They don’t get to really connect with their friends and before long they’re feeling isolated. Their world has been pretty much shaken and they don’t necessarily see an end to it.”

Children’s brains are still developing until they are about 25, Barrow said. So they tend to be more vulnerable when responding to problems brought on by the pandemic.

“This is a really formative time,” Webster said. “They’re trying to understand their own emotions and develop ways to cope with those emotions.”

Webster said since many adults are struggling with their mental health right now, they may not be demonstrating the best coping skills for their children. Or may not be talking about what they do to cope at all.

Emotional center

Augustine and Leganik, with Troy Junior High, said children who are junior high age typically experience depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety. The emotional center is the most active part of their brain at that age, Leganik said.

The huge responsibility of online learning can be overwhelming for some kids. The No. 1 request Leganik is getting from eighth-graders is that they would like study hall time, because it is a structured time to do work.

The school counselors said accelerated students seem to be hit the hardest because they typically get their motivation by being in the classroom. Students are also anxious about how state testing could affect their high experience or performance, Leganik said. Most students don’t think state testing should take place this year.

“That’s probably the biggest difference is just seeing some of the accelerated students. Their grades are so important to them and it’s easy to not be able to find something or to not recognize what assignments they were supposed to do,” Augustine said. “I will say as far as dealing with depression and isolation, I think it’s like this really every single year, but it’s different (triggers with the pandemic). There’s also a different group of kids that we’re seeing this year that we don’t normally see.”

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Augustine said one positive thing that has come from remote learning is that kids have started self-advocating.

“These kids are learning to communicate on their own behalf, and being a self advocate when they need something by reaching out to their teachers, by themselves, which I don’t think that we would have ever seen before the pandemic,” she said.

How to help

Barrow said parents and loved ones can help kids who may be “hitting the pandemic wall” by getting them out of their rooms and interacting with their family.

“A lot of kids are isolating in their room. They’ve got the TV in the room, they’ve got their laptop, their iPads, their cell phones … I mean they come out for food and water and that’s pretty much it,” Barrow said. “And, with COVID, they’re spending much more time isolated in their room because that’s really the only way to connect with anybody other than their family.”

Going for a family walk or playing a board game or making dinner together can help kids cope. Barrow said just having conversations about “everyday life” can help kids who are feeling isolated.

“Fortunately, most of the schools around here are back in session. But I do worry about the kids that have opted to stay on remote,” Barrow said. “I understand why (they would choose remote learning), because I know that’s certainly a choice. But, I know that isolated is not good.”

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Barrow said he worries that children who chose to continue remote learning may unintentionally get left out of things. For example, he said, if children make plans during the day to go somewhere after school, they may not think to call their friends who are at home. Barrow said once things get back to a new normal, some children will probably have difficulty re-engaging with their friends or other relationships.

Webster, with Dayton Children’s, said socializing is a skill and kids may feel out of practice, which will affect how they interact with their peers.

Other helpful things that parents or loved ones can do is to ask their children how they are doing or point-blank ask if they are having suicidal thoughts. It can also be helpful for parents say explain that they’re feeling anxious and have conversations with their kids about what they do to cope with their anxiety in a healthy way.

The most important thing parents and teachers can do when a child seems to be hitting a mental wall is the be understanding, Barrow said.

“When you’re talking with kids, and this is always hard to do as a parent, but you really want to try to be nonjudgmental and help them to feel like even if you’re don’t agree with what they’re doing, you still love them, and you still care about them and that your love and approval isn’t tied to their activities,” Barrow said. “They’re gonna goof up, they’re gonna make mistakes, sometimes they’re gonna make bad mistakes, but as a parent, we’re still supposed to be there for them. And if they feel like that’s not the case, they’re going to be less willing to engage.”

He sees children who are hitting a pandemic wall in both mental and physical ways.

From a conditioning or training standpoint, Barrow said he’s seeing about 10% of of athletes hit a wall physically that they didn’t used to have after getting COVID.

“Usually if they hit a wall, if they push hard enough, they’re able to push through it. But the post-COVID wall that we see with athletes is really something that seems like they’re not really able to push through,” Barrow said.

Kids also will likely lose some ground from an athletic standpoint once the pandemic ends, since some sports seasons were largely canceled. Barrow said keeping kids active also can help their mental health.

“Kids are resilient,” Augustine said. “There’s going to be some that struggle with this. If kids don’t receive the help that they need or there is not a strong support system, you can absolutely carry this forward as a fear forever. My hope, though, is that this just becomes a great learning tool. I hope they understand how fortunate we are. I hope in the future they’re just thankful that it is normal.”

Need help? The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours at 800-273-8255.

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