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Opinion: For many children, the return to normal patterns is not cause for celebration – but anxiety

Originally posted at The Hartford Courant

Connecticut’s steadily increasing vaccination rate and our return to gathering in public, however cautiously, has made the arrival of summer especially sweet this year. There is so much more to appreciate than the warmer weather and longer days. The once-unremarkable sight of multiple generations of a family sharing a meal at a restaurant, for example, is now something to savor, a moving reminder of all we had to give up and can once again enjoy.

For some, however, the return to more familiar patterns of daily life is a source of anxiety, not celebration. This is especially true for young people, and something parents should watch for as we prepare to return to school in the late summer. Since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, Community Health Center, Inc. (CHC) has seen the number of children and adolescents receiving behavioral health services increase by over 40 percent compared to 2019. The isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic restrictions, disruption of school and other daily routines, and the upheaval of lost jobs, homes, and especially loved ones, have set children already receiving treatment back and prompted calls from families whose children were previously doing well.

CHC has witnessed the crisis unfolding on the front lines. In my 23 years with CHC – and 40 years in the behavioral health field — I have not seen anything quite like it. The impact of the crisis is not limited to young people, either. Families, peers, social support networks, schools, and health care providers are feeling the effects of the crisis as well.

In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study comparing the frequency with which children came to emergency rooms in the United States for mental health reasons over other types of issues. Between April and October 2020, the agency found a 24% increase in mental health emergency department visits among kids ages 5 to 11 compared to the same period in 2019. Among 12- and 17-year olds, mental health-related ER visits in 2020 rose approximately 24% and 31% respectively over 2019. Already alarming pre-pandemic rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people soared as schools and communities shut down to fight the virus.

As the pandemic recedes, these issues will persist. While that news is unsettling, parents should know they are not alone. To those of you who have never seen this problem in your child before, I say most of us have never lived through a global pandemic before. Also, trust your instincts. As parents, we know our kids best and recognize deviations from what is normal for them. While one child might become withdrawn, another might suddenly become more extroverted, throwing caution to the wind and exhibiting risky behavior even without substance abuse. If the change is unfamiliar, pay attention. Invite conversation, even if it takes opening the door 20 times, and keep the door open. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. If ever there was a time to ditch your fears about the stigma associated with mental health treatment, now is it. Virtually everyone has been affected by this public health crisis or occasionally needs help, even elite athletes like tennis star Naomi Osaka. Let her example, and those of others who have come forward, faced their need, and gotten help, encourage you to do the same for your child and for yourself.

Teachers and school administrators know the challenges faced by children and families well, having navigated the twists and turns of the pandemic from the outset. But they, too, need to prepare for a new sort of stress and anxiety tied to the return of in-school learning. While some students are eager to get back to full classrooms and pass notes to their friends in crowded halls, others are filled with trepidation. Our school-based clinicians report young people mourning the loss of smaller, in-school cohorts of hybrid learning. Some are excited about getting on the school bus, while others still fear going out in public, getting sick, or exposing someone they love to the virus. Younger children have been hearing about the importance of a vaccine not yet available to them. No matter their age, children need safe places to discuss their fears and talk with caring adults equipped to see them through this time.

Hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is behind us, but continued vigilance is essential. The return to school will present new challenges, but we can meet them if parents, educators, and health care professionals work together. Kids are resilient and have demonstrated their ability time and again to rally against all the odds. But if you or your child is struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. It’s OK not to have all the answers. Together we can figure this out.

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