changing minds

How to Help Kids and Teens Struggling During the Pandemic

NBC Universal, Inc.

This year has challenged all of us.

World Mental Health Day is Saturday, and it comes at a time when so many of us are dealing with emotional turmoil stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. While you may be finding ways to deal with the stress and uncertainty, kids and teens may be struggling.

"Social isolation, financial stress, job loss, food insecurity, housing insecurity: These are all things that have increased with regard to COVID," said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente.

She says demand for mental health care has soared, but too many people are not getting the help they need.

New research shows that African American and Latino teens are far more likely than their peers to have mental health issues, especially now during the coronavirus crisis, yet their symptoms often go unaddressed and untreated.

The statistics are alarming.

"Suicide is the second leading cause of death in all Americans ages 10 to 34. We know in our Latino youth and in our African American youth, those numbers are increasing significantly," Patton-Smith said. "In African Americans, the suicide rate increased 73 percent between 1991 and 2017. So just really staggering numbers."

And with so many children learning from home, there are fewer opportunities to identify those who are suffering.

"The school is kind of that second pair of eyes to really check in on kids and see how they're doing in real time in the school environment," Patton-Smith said.

That's why it's important for parents and caregivers to be on the lookout for signs of trouble.

"Depression looks different in each person," Patton-Smith said.

"They may have headaches, belly pain, irritability, feeling socially isolated, arguing for no reason, sleeping too much, sleeping too little, not eating as much," she said.

Very young children can be can be struggling with mental health issues as well.

"So elementary school age kids and younger -- it's a little bit challenging," Patton-Smith said. "What really needs to happen is a parent notice changes in behavior, so more kind of those physical and emotional changes that are ongoing for a week or more."

Patton-Smith says it's important to talk with your children early and often -- and really listen to them. They need to know you want to help.

"It's OK to not be OK and then it's OK to receive help. It doesn’t mean you're crazy; it doesn't mean you're weak," she said. "It just means that just like if you were going to go to the doctor for your asthma issues, if you have depression issues, you go to the doctor or therapist and get the correct support."

She says even health providers have a responsibility to reach out to help those who need it the most.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, only 2 percent of psychiatrists in the United States are Black, which is another factor that often discourages people of color from seeking care.

Contact Us