By Claire McCarthy, MD, Harvard Health
We are in the midst of a pediatric mental health crisis — and parents need to take action.
Over the past couple of years, the pandemic has not only killed hundreds of thousands; it has also shut us inside, cut off social contacts, taken parents out of work and children out of school. The consequences have been tremendous. And one of those consequences is that we are seeing alarming amounts of anxiety and depression in our children and teens.
A national emergency among children and teens
In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. They called for increased funding for mental health resources, as well as other actions, including more integration of mental health care into schools and primary care, more community-based systems to connect people to mental health programs, strategies to increase the number of mental health providers, and ensuring that there is insurance coverage of mental health care.
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These are all necessary, and efforts to ensure them are ongoing. But while we work to build mental health care systems, there are things that parents can do to help their children through this crisis.
Mental health is just as important as physical health
First and foremost, we must understand that. If a child has a fever or a persistent cough, parents react — they pay attention and reach out for help. But if a child seems sad or irritable, or less interested in activities they used to enjoy, they tend to think of it as a phase, or teen angst, or something else that can be ignored. The mental health of our children is crucial. Not only does mental health affect physical health, but untreated mental health problems interfere with learning, socialization, self-esteem, and other important aspects of child development that can have lifelong repercussions. And for some children, untreated mental health problems lead to suicide.
So pay attention, and take what you see seriously. If your child is showing signs of anxiety or depression, call your doctor. Don’t put it off. If your child talks about harming themself or others, get help immediately, such as by going to your local emergency room. In this situation, it’s better to overreact than underreact.
Create rituals of communication and safe spaces to talk
It’s easy to lose connection with our children, especially our teens. Whether it’s family dinner, family game night, talking on the ride to school, or a nightly check-in before bed, having regular times to ask open-ended questions and to listen to your children is important.
Make sure your child has downtime
We all need this, and children particularly need it. Be sure they aren’t overscheduled; make sure that there is time for them to do things they enjoy.
Encourage healthy media habits
One of the things kids enjoy these days is being on their devices, which can be fun and connect them to friends, but can also contribute to problems with mental health. Talk to your child about how they use media. Common Sense Media has a wealth of useful information.
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep — and some exercise
Both are very important for mental health as well as physical health. Here are tips to help your child get the sleep they need. And even short bursts of exercise can lessen anxiety.
Keep in touch with teachers, coaches, and other adults in your child’s life
Not only may they have information about your child that you need, but they can also play an important supportive role. Open lines of communication with them can make a difference — and help to create community, which we all need, especially now.
Click here to read the full article on Harvard Health.