Although doctors and nurses are warning the public of a new surge in COVID-19 cases spurred on by the delta variant, child psychologists are warning that the new school year will bring about a surge of kids facing mental health crises as well. In pre-pandemic years, the months of September and October were especially active for child mental health specialists. Dr. Richard Martini, a child psychiatrist at Salt Lake City’s Primary Children’s Hospital and the University of Utah, says that in typical years, the end of September and early October saw the biggest rise in kids visiting mental health professionals. Dr. Martini explains that by this time, teachers and school administrators developed enough of a rapport with their new students to know when something was wrong.
Despite this expected rise in kids seeking psychological counseling, experts warn that the pandemic has exacerbated an already critical situation. According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the months between March 2020 and May 2020 saw a 24 percent rise in kids ages 5 to 11 visiting hospitals due to a mental health emergency. The increase was even steeper for kids ages 12 to 17, who had a rise of 31 percent in the same months. The situation has yet to abate, as revealed in findings from the Children’s Hospital Association, which found a 15 percent rise from 2019 in children coming to hospitals for mental health problems.
According to Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, most cases involving kids and mental health are rooted in anxiety. For younger kids, Dr. Ramtekkar explains that this type of anxiety concerns separation from their parents or fears that their parents might get sick with COVID-19. Meanwhile, Boston-based psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite argues that anxiety in older kids is based more on social issues and academic performance. These kids might have further problems when it comes to transitioning back into in-person learning after more than a year of remote or hybrid schooling. Experts further say that kids with pre-existing mental health conditions are especially vulnerable to experiencing a mental health crisis as they return to school this year.
Despite all these challenges, Dr. Christian-Brathwaite says that schools are well-prepared to help kids who might be experiencing a mental health emergency. Many school administrators have reached out to mental health professionals to train teachers on how to spot and help children who are struggling with their psychological health. Hospitals are also preparing for an influx of kids with mental health concerns by recruiting more child psychologists and thereby expanding their services for new patients.