May is Mental Health Awareness Month – and it couldn’t have more inspired meaning than it does right now. Staying healthy during COVID-19 applies to both our physical health and our mental health. If we don’t address both, in ourselves and in our children, we might quickly find ourselves in a second crisis.
While our children may appear resilient and adaptable on the surface, new research is finding that the shakeup to their routines could be having more negative impacts on their mental health than one might think. In China, a JAMA Pediatrics study found that about one in five children reported symptoms of depression after their schools had been closed for a month.
While adults are struggling, we do have some tools at our disposal to help us adjust to new schedules and work expectations, info at our fingertips if we need to start exploring mental health resources for ourselves, or even simply the option to commiserate with colleagues and friends via video chat. Our children don’t have those same tools – and they need an adult to recognize they’re struggling and make those connections for them. Signs that teenagers might be struggling include unusual or excessive irritability or acting out and in younger children, returning to behaviors they’ve outgrown.
At school, children have a set schedule and a predictable set of rules that teachers put in place at the beginning of the school year, and for those with a mental health diagnosis, they may also have additional support at school in the form of therapists, paraprofessionals, school social workers and more. While teachers, staff and students have worked hard to translate those into distance learning, the structure, socializing and day-to-day expectations simply cannot be converted to a screen.
Parents are trying to teach their children at home, often while working, and teachers, who may be most familiar with how a child’s mental health issues transpire in a classroom, are no longer there in person to help them cope or offer strategies. Instead, parents are facing these challenges alone, with little or no support, trying their best to be a parent, educator and therapist for their child.
Grappling with your child’s stress from a lack of routine is difficult in and of itself, but if the adult in the household also struggles with a mental health condition, the whole family can quickly find itself in a shaky situation. To those families across Minnesota who are struggling, we’d like to say one thing: you’re not alone.
There’s help available for those who need it. Parents with children who are struggling should start by asking their school districts for support as soon as possible, so they’re well-equipped to handle any mental health issues over summer break. Even if you’ve never needed to ask the school for mental health resources before, don’t hesitate to start that conversation sooner rather than later. Many school social workers can connect directly with students, and others are offering daily open help sessions on video. Many schools also have a school-linked mental health program where community providers offer therapy and other services.
For additional outside resources, families can turn to People Incorporated’s Training Institute and NAMI Minnesota, both of which are offering free classes to help families cope with mental health issues during the pandemic. Through the classes taught by the Training Institute, parents and students can learn practical resiliency-building and de-escalation tips. NAMI also has a plethora of free classes, as well as online support groups, and a helpline (651-645-2948, ext. 117).
During Mental Health Awareness Month, particularly now, we urge you to start a conversation in your household when it comes to mental health challenges, embrace the resources available to you, and reach out to those in your community with school-aged children. We’ll all be healthier for it.
Jill Wiedemann-West is the CEO of People Incorporated Mental Health Services, Minnesota’s largest community provider of vital integrated behavioral and mental health services. Sue Abderholden is the Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses and their families.