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We must confront COVID-19's impact on kids' mental health | Opinion

Brenda Allgood, Non-Public School Nurse Program, Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative

Special to the USA TODAY Network

Published in the Courier-Post August 3, 3022

The new school year is just weeks away. Is your child ready? Beyond shopping for the latest must-have fashions, purchasing the requisite school supplies and the general back-to-school frenzy that rolls around this time every year, have you paused to ask yourself if your child is truly prepared for the new academic year?

Most students lament the end of summer and the start of a new school year. That’s not new. What is still relatively new is accurately measuring the indelible mental and emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our children.

These underlying factors, while very serious, may not seem obvious. We already know teens and adolescents internalize their feelings and can be hard to assess, especially when you consider the traditional growing pains of being an adolescent, years that are shaped by self-identity issues, transitioning from childhood to a young adult, changing hormones and physical appearance, dating and relationships and challenging academic demands.

Never before in the modern era have young people shouldered such an avalanche of devastation, uncertainty and complicated feelings all generated by the pandemic: catastrophic illnesses, the loss of a loved one, prolonged disruptions from routines, social isolation, remote learning, relatives losing employment and the threat of eviction. So many changes all at once and not enough time to process it or develop tools to navigate these pandemic-related challenges.

It is widely documented that children have suffered from anxiety throughout the pandemic. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the incidence of clinically significant anxiety for this population was approximately 11.6% prior to COVID-19. It’s now estimated that cases of adolescent anxiety have doubled, with some sources stating it is as high as 63.8%. Females were found to have a greater incidence of anxiety, as were older teenagers and those living in low socioeconomic environments.

There was no playbook when COVID-19 struck. Stuck at home in a mandated lockdown, many adolescents felt lost in the uncertainty. Parents had to balance the challenges of teaching their own children, identifying childcare resources and supporting their families as businesses shuttered and workers were furloughed. Financial burdens quickly mounted as families lost their only reliable streams of income. 

Children who previously received meals through their school programs did not have access to the same level of adequate nutrition. Students were cheated of normal routines with friends and schoolmates, including sports and after-school activities, school dances, class trips and graduation ceremonies, all of which were cancelled in the early stages of the pandemic.

Severe disruptions to mental health services deepened during the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, a sharp spike in mental health conditions during the pandemic was compounded by limited mental health resources and limited access to those resources, creating large gaps in care for those who needed it most. JAMA reported that 80% of children relied on school-based services to address their mental health needs which were not met due to school closures. Without access to those services and as the pandemic became protracted, cases of anxiety increased and the gap in care widened exponentially.

As telehealth or virtual visits became the new standard during the pandemic, barriers remained with limited or lack of access to technology and the internet, as well as many patients expressing a need for in-person appointments.

While the symptoms associated with anxiety in the adolescent population vary greatly, they should not be simply dismissed as teen behaviors. Parental observations of changes in childhood behavior are critical to identifying potential concerns so that children can benefit from support and intervention, which can result in improved outcomes.

As we continue the long recovery from the pandemic, resume routines and prepare for the school year ahead, our shared goals must be to confront the mental health challenges that continue to affect our children.

While much of this is incumbent upon parents in the home setting, our schools have trained staff and established protocols to screen and provide at-risk students access to equitable school-based services. School administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, school nurses and school guidance counselors are in a unique position to intervene and assist our children.

COVID-related anxiety continues to be a palpable threat to the mental health and wellbeing of our children. Is it on your back-to-school checklist?

Brenda Allgood of West Deptford is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and is coordinator of the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative’s Non-Public School Nurse Program.

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