It seems much longer than a mere three months ago that I began writing articles about COVID-19 and mental health — especially how the pandemic and the disruptions it caused might impact the mental wellbeing of children and adolescents, teens and young adult college students. The summer seems to have passed so quickly but with so much more to think about, and certainly no respite from the pandemic.
If last spring students were enthusiastic about not having to get up and go to school, the novelty of online-only learning wore off quickly. And if they didn’t miss school itself, they certainly missed seeing their classmates and friends daily. Surely many students, of all ages, looked forward to going back to the new school year, having had quite enough of isolation and the feelings of loneliness that could result.
Now it’s August and schools in Georgia are reopening — slowly, carefully and thoughtfully in most cases — but we again find ourselves in uncharted territory. We know — because it has become national news — that some schools which reopened have had to close because of numerous COVID-19 infections among students and staff. While such action is critical for public health, it is also likely very stressful to students.
That the pandemic has already impacted young people’s mental health is not surprising. A national survey of 1,500 youth ages 13-19 found that 7 in 10 are struggling with their mental health in the wake of COVID-19. The study, commissioned by the National 4-H Council, also found that 67% of respondents felt pressured to keep their feelings to themselves, and 70% wished their school taught them more about mental health and coping strategies.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. What there is, however, is opportunity. Parents are often "first responders" to a child’s mental health challenges — meaning parents are most likely to witness potentially worrying behaviors (some of which may be negative and unexpected) and are also likely to be the first available resource a young person has that can help. Bottom line: parents have a critical role in safeguarding their children’s mental health.
If you find it difficult to talk to your children about their mental health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed some practical questions you can ask, which I want to share (you can find more information at www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/parents-caregivers). Try leading with these questions and listen actively to your child’s response:
• Can you tell me more about what is happening? How you are feeling?
• Have you had feelings like this in the past?
• Sometimes you need to talk to an adult about your feelings. I'm here to listen. How can I help you feel better?
• Do you feel like you want to talk to someone else about how you are feeling?
• I'm worried about your safety. Can you tell me if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?
When talking about mental health problems with your child, remember:
• Communicate in a straightforward manner (factual and non-emotional).
• Speak at a level that is appropriate to a child or adolescent's age and development level (preschool children need fewer details than teenagers).
• Discuss the topic when your child feels safe and comfortable.
• Watch for reactions during the discussion — slow down or back up if your child becomes confused or looks upset.
• Listen openly and let your child tell you about his or her feelings and worries.
• Keep in mind that sometimes it’s easier for your children to open up when you are engaged in an activity together, such as riding in the car or playing a card game.
This pandemic, of course, has had an emotional impact on everyone to some degree. It has been difficult, stressful and ongoing. But these factors have also likely caused deeper impacts to some people, especially young people. In fact, these questions may be a good conversation to have even if your child seems fine — sometimes the most important thing you can do is ask.
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for mental health, addiction and intellectual developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Whitfield and Murray counties.