By Dena Vang
The ongoing stress, fear, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many negative mental health impacts among children and adolescents. During the recent virtual town hall titled Mental Wealth: COVID’s Impact on Mental Health in the Black Community, a panel of trusted doctors discussed insights into how parents and caregivers can support their children’s mental health during the pandemic and beyond.
- Identify symptoms of mental illness
In children, being mentally healthy means “reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In recent years, children have been experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression.
“There are a variety of ways that kids can present mental health issues, anxiety, and depression – when we can’t function in school, when we’re not able to maintain friendships, when we’re no longer interacting with the family, and we just want to stay in our room all day,” said Dr. Samira Brown, primary care pediatrician at Piedmont Healthcare in Georgia and a W Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute physician.
While children may not always understand why they feel the way that they feel, Dr. Brown shared that it’s important to recognize and address the way children learn, behave, and handle their emotions.
- Talk to your child about how they are feeling
Parents and caregivers are the first ones to teach children how to manage their emotions. Although having conversations about emotional topics may feel uncomfortable for both parents and children, it builds a foundation of trust when navigating different feelings.
“Having those conversations with children when they are not happy is probably going to be one of the best conversations you can have,” said Dr. Byron Jasper, CEO of Byja Clinic, Louisiana’s first Black-owned direct primary care practice, and W Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute physician. “When you do that early on, it gives them the platform to open up to negative feelings.”
Dr. Kendell Jasper, clinical psychologist at Jasper Psychological Services, PLLC, noted that having conversations with children today when it comes to behavior and emotions may look different from how parents were raised growing up.
“Times have changed. Things are different. We also understand that there’s more than one way to manage a situation. Not that our parents were wrong, but not that this way of managing things is wrong as well,” he shared.
- Set boundaries on Internet usage
With quarantine, school closures, and online learning environments, children and adolescents have had increased exposure to the Internet. Social media can also put children more at risk for anxiety and depression. Dr. Brown encourages parents to be proactive about monitoring what their children are doing online.
“Certainly, when it comes to Internet access, you definitely want to make sure that you have parental controls on, that you’re monitoring what’s happening, that you know who your kids are playing games with,” said Dr. Brown. “You want to make sure that you are being very vigilant when it comes to what your kids are exposed to, even the messages that they are receiving. Please be mindful that it does increase their risk of mental illness.”
- Be proactive in seeking preventive care
Preventive care can reduce chances of serious mental illness. Reaching out to a school counselor or pediatrician early and regularly will be key to finding and accessing mental health resources for children.
“You don’t want to wait until it’s an emergency. Come to your pediatrician and get screened. Get your referrals. Make that appointment. Establish therapy,” Dr. Brown shared. “It doesn’t mean your child is going to be on medicine. It doesn’t mean your child is going to be hospitalized. Coming in, establishing, and getting those screenings is how we prevent those mental health emergencies.”
- Get your child vaccinated if they are eligible
COVID-19 vaccines help to prevent infection, reduce the spread of the virus, and allow children to stay in school and continue participating in different activities, which helps to relieve mental health burdens. Children 5 years old and older are currently eligible to get vaccinated.
“If you look at 5- to 11-year-old children, we have vaccinated 8 million children just here in the U.S. That’s a lot of safety data,” said Dr. Brown. “This is a safe vaccine. It’s a third of the dose that adults get. Kids are doing phenomenally well with it.”
To find a vaccine site, search vaccines.gov, text your ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find locations near you.
To watch the virtual town hall in its entirety, visit the Stay Well Community Health Fairs YouTube Channel.