Kids’ Health Is Too Often Overlooked During the Pandemic

Posted on March 4, 2021 by

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For almost a year, most children have been navigating the new, difficult normal: social isolation; deeply stressed parents; the effects of financial uncertainty; school from home or from WiFi equipped school buses if they don’t have Internet. Covid-19 has largely been sparing children´s physical health, but studies have shown it has taken a toll on their mental health, associated with an increase in suicide-related behaviors, experts say. Children and teens are very reliant on social connection, which has been severely limited by the pandemic.

¨We have to help young people to stay connected socially as much as possible in safe ways,¨ Lisa Furst, chief program officer at Vibrant Emotional Health, which among other things runs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said. “‘Social distancing’ is a misnomer, and the opposite of what kids need. It’s physical distancing we require during the pandemic, but social and emotional closeness is more important than ever. Technology can be leveraged there, but it is a slippery slope, trying to get kids to connect digitally without a different kind of screen-time overload setting–but we have to try.”

Back in March, many people expected to get back to normal after a month or two, but that hasn’t happened.

¨We had pinned our hopes on getting through winter and the vaccine being here, and the distribution of the vaccine is going to be delayed, even for those who want it,¨ Dr. Julie Williamson, associate professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Emory University at Atlanta, said.

Parents should Reassure children that it will be ok and it is normal to be struggling.

¨Check in with your children and let them know this is a historically hard time for everybody, and reassure them: It will pass,¨ Williamson said. 

Suicide was the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 10 to 19 in the United States in 2018, before the pandemic. Suicide attempts and ideation weren´t consistently higher in 2020, until a recent prepublication with a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Pediatrics found some increases.

¨Months with significantly higher rates of suicide-related behaviors appear to correspond to times when covid-related stressors and community responses were heightened, indicating that youth experienced elevated distress during these periods,¨ the report, which looked at people between the ages 11 and 21, noted.

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), the most recent completed month, December 2020, showed a 4% increase in NSPL call volume from December 2019, though not all months during the pandemic showed increases.

¨Adolescents are very peer-focused under ordinary circumstances,¨ Furst said. ¨The nature of the public health measures, such as remote school and physical distancing, may impact teens and youth very significantly because they feel so isolated from their peer group.¨ 

¨One of the ways to prevent pediatric suicide attempts is to keep your medications locked away,¨ Williamson said. ¨For adolescents, suicide is often extremely impulsive and not pre-planned, so even small barriers can keep catastrophes from happening.”

Parents should invest in a lockbox, and not just for potentially fatal prescription drugs, Williamson suggested.

¨Attain a lockbox for even nonprescription drugs like Tylenol¨, Williamson said. It will keep guard against accidental overdose. ¨For smaller children, it will keep them from accidentally taking pills or medications that look like candy.”

The same goes for other potentially harmful objects, especially if kids are in distress.

¨If there’s a gun in the house, get rid of it for a while¨ Furst said. 

Both Williamson and Furst suggested keeping an eye on children during a pandemic, not just the ones who have expressed feelings of anxiety or depression or communicated a desire to die. If a child becomes moody or withdrawn, or has major changes in appetite or sleep, they say, it may be time to find a mental health provider.

¨Noticing changes in behavior is important,¨ Furst said.

“If a child is actively in a crisis,” Williamson said, “call 911 or a crisis hotline like NSPL. If it is not a crisis, start with your pediatrician. Your doctor should be able to steer you toward someone to talk to and where to get help.”

The steps to take begin with asking in a direct and unbiased way: Are you thinking about suicide? Parents should follow through and keep any promises they make to call or to visit or to help and be there emotionally (even if they can’t be there physically.) Parents need to keep their children safe by finding out if they have an actual plan or have taken steps toward suicide, so they will know what to do next, like going to an emergency room or removing access to any planned methodology. Parents must help chidlren connect to NSPL, a therapist, or other community resources and follow up even if the crisis has passed.