Let’s keep children’s mental health on the podium — Opinion

September 27, 2021 7:25 am

TOKYO, JAPAN – AUGUST 03: Simone Biles of Team United States in action during the Women’s balance beam final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

In July, Olympians filled headlines with their own mental health journeys on the public stage. For Minnesota children and teens feeling the pressure of worry, sadness and fear, that journey often goes quietly unnoticed.

Children’s mental health was already a public health crisis before the pandemic in 2019, with an estimated 100,000 Minnesota kids suffering from untreated anxiety, depression and trauma. Now, as students head back into classrooms and social settings after 20 months of stress created by COVID-19 and social unrest, we are seeing an even more significant groundswell of mental health needs among our community’s youth. 

What we are witnessing is “universal trauma”

COVID-19 is impacting everyone’s mental health, regardless of race, ethnicity or cultural identity. And, it’s on track to undermine our state’s future based on trends our therapists are seeing.

  • COVID-19 disrupted the typical “safety nets” that identified children who needed help: schools, annual check-ups and social activities.
  • There’s an increased demand for services flooding the mental health system and all providers.
  • More kids are impacted by their caregiver’s pandemic-related stress and untreated mental health challenges.
  • Mental health challenges are more complex than ever before.
  • Impact from this trauma will last long beyond the pandemic.

The fact is that children’s mental health concerns are the most common and most costly health conditions of childhood. And, we know that untreated conditions have profound, lifelong health consequences — both mentally and physically. 

Hope is in our midst

Even in the stark reality of current trends, we are encouraged, as more families are reaching out for help, more frequently. The heightened awareness is breaking the stigma — but we can still do more. 

It’s not realistic for us to think things will be normal. Kids haven’t had social interactions, schools haven’t been open and activities have been widely cancelled. It is not the same as it was — and we need to help kids understand that “It’s OK to not feel OK.” 

As students settle into the routine of school, adults can watch for these signs that a child in their circle could use help and hope:

  • Change in behaviors — hesitancy in social situations or frequent feelings of anger, irritability;
  • Difficulty holding attention — even during play;
  • Change in how they communicate — becoming more quiet or withdrawn; acting out their feelings if they can’t find words;
  • Challenges with sleeping, like nightmares or hard time falling asleep.

Investment and commitment to children’s mental health is imperative to our collective future and the future of our communities. Early intervention has profound, lifelong impact on children, families and society. 

Let us boldly pickup and carry the torch that was passed to us by Olympians. Let’s spread the word about the transformative power of seeking care and support for our kids.

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Jenny Britton

Jenny Britton is director of children and family services at the nonprofit Washburn Center for Children, a leader in child-centered care, with the broadest and deepest spectrum of children’s mental health services in Minnesota.