This past school year was unlike any other for kids of all ages, and this disruption of norms is something behavioral health experts are watching closely. Children experienced new things like virtual schooling, home schooling, prolonged time away from friends, half-full classrooms and cancelled extracurricular activities.
Pandemic exposed deep disparities
“What we’re learning is that many children were impacted negatively by the pandemic when it comes to their mental health,” said Dr. Erica Larson, Marshfield Clinic Health System child psychiatrist. “Those children who may have already been disadvantaged before COVID, and really counted on their school system for healthy meals and a safe, structured learning environment, have been particularly hard hit in the mental health sense.”
Larson noted that the expansion of telehealth during the pandemic has actually, in some cases, increased access to mental health services. But again on this front, disparities are present. Rural communities across the country have less access to broadband internet than do their peers who live in and around big cities. That means even if new and expanded telehealth options are available, some are unable to access them simply because they have no internet at home.
Every age group was disrupted
Larson said very young children in the preschool or kindergarten range may be especially impacted by the loss of social contact they experienced during the pandemic as it is so critical for development early in life. But she noted that every age group was uniquely affected by the pandemic.
“Individuals in high school or middle school who are missing so many of those milestone events – graduations, dances, sports – were uniquely impacted as well. Every age group struggled, and our society in general is going to struggle with how this pandemic challenged us mentally, emotionally and psychologically,” Larson said. “We are seeing effects of loneliness, isolation, economic and housing instability, loss of typical routine, and all of that is leading to destabilization for many children.”
Pre-existing trauma, mental illness increase risk of struggling
Children who have been through traumatic experiences, or had pre-existing mental health conditions before the pandemic, are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues now. Larson added that so many parents have experienced job loss, economic distress, health problems and more during the pandemic, and kids pick up on, and take on, some of that stress.
Now that the pandemic is hopefully winding down and life returns to normal in many ways, children will be challenged to again transition, Larson said. As hard as the pandemic has been, people have gotten used to this new normal, and to transition out of it may be stressful for many.
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, or just want to check in with an expert in the wake of the pandemic, contact your child’s primary care or mental health care provider.