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The Emotional Effect on Children as the Pandemic Surges

The past year has been challenging for most people—the isolation created from quarantining, the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, the uncertainty—and in many ways, it’s taken an even greater toll on children.

People have certainly dealt with difficult situations before. From natural disasters to the 9/11 attacks, one thing that helped Americans rebound in those circumstances was people reaching out to help and coming together. But that opportunity isn’t available to us in a pandemic. 

Through a Child’s Eyes

While children have been spared from the worst of the disease (only a small number of children have suffered severe cases, most of those 18 years of age and under who contract the disease are more likely to experience milder symptoms or none at all), they have not escaped the stress.

Younger children and those with special needs don’t have the capacity to comprehend a pandemic. They see the daily routines they depend on to make sense of their world disrupted—schools closed, summer camps shutdown, play dates canceled—but cannot understand the cause. They also may have an acute awareness of the anxiety the adults around them, causing ambient stress.

Those who can understand may become overwhelmed with a fear of becoming sick or their family members becoming sick. For school-age children and teens, the absence of socializing with their friends, which is a huge part of their lives, can lead to loneliness and boredom. 

Minimal Available Data

There’s not much available data on how the pandemic affects children’s mental health because the pandemic is still very new, and studies take time. The few data that do exist paint a frightening picture.

In one study from China, published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers in Hubei province, where the pandemic originated, examined a sample group of 2,330 schoolchildren for signs of emotional distress. The kids had been locked down for a relatively short period than the average quarantine time in the US—an average of 33.7 days. Even in that short time, more than 22 percent of them reported depressive symptoms, and nearly 19 percent experienced anxiety.

The pandemic’s devastating economic situation is another factor adding to a child’s stress level. In a 2018 paper published in Health Economics, Golberstein and his co-authors studied economic conditions in the US from 2001 to 2013. During the Great Recession, they found a 5-percent-age-point increase in the national unemployment rate correlated with an astounding 35 to 50 percent increase in children’s mental health problems

The US unemployment rate exceeded 10 percent in July 2020, significantly higher than the 3.6 percent reported in January 2020. As a resort area with a large portion of jobs in the hospitality industry affected by the pandemic, the Vail Valley continues to experience historic unemployment claims, with 1.4 million claims the last week of July 2020, a 12,000 increase from the week before. 

Fortunately, residents in Eagle County and Vail Valley can get help. A grant from Eagle Valley Behavioral Health (EVBH) and the Katz Amsterdam Foundation enabled Eagle County Paramedic Services to add Community Behavioral Health Navigators to its team. The navigators can help those in need to find a therapist, connect them to community resources or support groups, and facilitate communication between mental health providers.

The Stakes Are Higher for Children with Pre-existing Mental Health Issues

More than 7 percent of children, ages 3 to 17, have been diagnosed with anxiety in the US. Within the group diagnosed with anxiety, more than 3 percent also suffer from depression. Other conditions, including behavioral issues and ADHD, are also higher than 7 percent. Experts are concerned that those children are at an even higher risk due to the disruption of services. In an April editorial published in JAMA Pediatrics, analysis of data from 2012 to 2015 showed that among all students who received any mental health services, nearly 60 percent of them got at least a portion of the services at school, while 35 percent received all of their services from the school. With some schools shut down, so is the care.

Get the help your child needs before the situation escalates. Olivia’s Fund, named in honor of Olivia Ortega, will provide financial assistance to anyone who lives or works in Eagle County to help pay for mental health and/or substance use services for up to six sessions per person per year. Other financial assistance may also be available.

Tips to Help Children Cope

There are a few things families can do to help children deal with pandemic-induced stress. Helping children feel safe, and maintaining healthy routines can help manage their behavior and build resilience.

  • Answer questions about the pandemic simply & honestly. Talk with children about any frightening news​ they hear. It’s okay to say people are getting sick, but also let them know that following rules like hand washing and staying home will help your family stay healthy.
  • Recognize your child’s feelings. Let them know that you understand that not being able to have friends visit is upsetting. Encourage older children to think of other ways to stay in touch with friends.
  • Keep in touch with your loved ones. Children may also worry about a grandparent, relative, or friend living alone who has an increased risk of getting COVID-19. Phone calls and other technology platforms, when available, can help.
  • Model how to manage feelings. Talk to children about the coping strategies you’re using. For example, explain that checking in with Grandma helps you control your concerns. 
  • Tell your child about your plans before leaving. Reassure your child whenever you leave the house that you are taking steps to stay safe. Let them know where you’re going, how long you will be gone, and when you will return.  
  • Look forward. Tell your children that scientists and health care workers are working hard to help people who get ill and that things will get better.
  • Keep healthy routines. Maintain daily routines to help create a sense of order.
  • Offer extra hugs and say, “I love you” more often.

It is a trying and frightening time for families and especially for children. Reach out to Eagle Valley Behavioral Health when you or your children need help to make it through this difficult time.

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