I’ve always enjoyed Michigan summers and the opportunities they bring for children to get outdoors, to explore and to play. Following a year and a half of COVID-19 concerns, summer is a welcome opportunity for children to get back to the sports and activities they love.
Unfortunately, for many youths in our community, re-entry into the world is not as easy as it may seem. More than a year of social isolation during the pandemic has magnified issues in children and adolescents struggling with anxiety and depression.
There have been studies regarding the relationship between loneliness and mental health in healthy children and adolescents. We know social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of depression, even a decade later. Throughout the country, pediatricians are concerned that the loneliness experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely affect the future mental health and wellbeing of our youth.
My colleague, a senior clinical social worker at IHA Pediatrics, recently shared with me that many of the adolescent patients he speaks with have talked about feeling isolated and separated from friends and other supportive groups.
Children and teens have turned to social media as their primary source of maintaining a connection with their peers. In many cases, this online-only environment has ended friendships which, in turn, has caused many adolescents to become reluctant to return to in-person learning. My same colleague recalls that during a recent appointment, a 10-year-old described deeply disliking in-person learning because he “doesn’t know anyone anymore” and worries that he will not be able to make friends again.
What to look for
With the return to activities, symptoms of anxiety or depression could show up at any point. Some children initially may seem fine, with parents noticing signs several weeks later. Other children will exhibit symptoms right away.
Not all children will be able to express their feelings of depression or anxiety in an obvious way. Instead, they may exhibit physical symptoms, such as stomach aches or headaches, or behavior changes, such as withdrawal from family and friends, irritability, argumentativeness, and aggression. Some may try to avoid activities they previously enjoyed.
Parents and guardians should learn to recognize signs of mental illness, as it isn’t always obvious.
How to help the children and teens in your life
Checking in with kids about their mental health may be one of the most important things we can do to help our youth out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes, it’s as easy as saying, “Hey, I see you are having a hard day today. Is something making you worried?”
Encouraging children and adolescents to participate in physical activities and spending time outdoors with peers is an excellent step in helping improve physical and mental health. As we continue to vaccinate our community and as COVID-19 cases continue to decrease, kids will experience positive emotional benefits with increased safe socialization.
Of course, when in doubt you should always reach out to your child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians routinely evaluate patients for mental health concerns. Your child’s doctor can make recommendations such as healthy lifestyle changes or connect you with a mental health professional who has experience and expertise in treating children.
We cannot ignore the negative impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the mental health and wellbeing of our children. Parents, family, friends, pediatricians, and therapists can all help address the mental health needs of children and adolescents. The earlier we intervene for our youth, the better chance we have of making a positive impact in their lives.
Melissa Heinen, DO, MPH, is a board-certified pediatrician and the Pediatric Division Head at IHA. If you would like to speak to a pediatrician about your child’s mental health and for more information, visit www.ihacares.com/pediatrics.