Challenges to children’s mental health had been on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but have greatly increased during recent years.

Children’s mental health before the pandemic

Numerous studies show that mental health challenges were increasing in children and young adults in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2019 National Survey of Children’s Health, about one in five children ages 3 to 17 had a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder prior to the pandemic. The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), conducted every two years by the CDC since 1991, also shows an increase in mental health concerns. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of high school students who felt sad or hopeless for two weeks or more in a row increased from 26.1 percent to 36.7 percent. That same survey reports that the percentage of high school students who seriously considered attempting suicide increased from 13.8 percent in 2009 to 18.8 percent in 2019.

Other studies demonstrate dramatic increases in emergency room and hospital encounters for deliberate self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts by children and adolescents leading up to the pandemic. These increases have disproportionately affected various racial groups. The YRBS shows that Black non-Hispanic high school students, who had the highest rates of suicide attempts among highschoolers in 2019, had consistent increases in suicide attempts from 2009 to 2019. During that time period, Hispanic and White high school students had increases in suicide attempts from 2009 to 2015 before dropping in 2017 and then increasing again in 2019.

The effects of the pandemic on children’s mental health

We all experienced a dramatic disruption to our everyday lives when the pandemic hit, and children were no exception. Suddenly, school-age children were trying to learn from home, finding themselves isolated from in-person interactions with classmates, and struggling with anxiety about the virus. The situation was even more difficult for children with disabilities, preexisting trauma, or preexisting mental health concerns.

Children were also impacted by dramatic shifts in their home lives. As families faced economic hardship and instability, as well as food insecurity, there were higher incidents of parental mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Not only did these situations directly impact the children, it also made it that much harder for families to find support for children with mental health concerns.

How to help children with their mental health

We often hear “it takes a village” to raise children, and addressing their mental health concerns is no exception. Here are some ways to help children with their mental health:

Supporting children at home

Parents are in the best position to help their children by modeling coping strategies for dealing with everyday stressors. Parents can learn more about common mental health concerns among children on our podcast, Mindcast: Healthy Mind, Healthy Child.

Supporting children at school

The majority of children spend large portions of their day in school, making school an optimal location for providing additional assistance. Many schools have mental health professionals (e.g. social workers, counselors and psychologists) in addition to the teachers who are potential supports for students.

Collaborative care for children’s mental health

Talk with your child’s pediatrician about any concerns you have regarding your child’s mental health. Services such as the Pediatric Psychiatry Resource Network (PediPRN) help pediatricians consult with mental health providers and improve access to and delivery of high-quality mental health services for youth and adolescents.

Seeking culturally appropriate services

When appropriate, finding a mental health provider who is part of a child’s cultural community is incredibly beneficial for children. For example, the Mi Gente Program meets the behavioral health needs of Latinx and Hispanic youth with mood disorders and trauma. When thinking about culture, we must also consider the generational gaps between children and their adult providers that may interfere with treatment.

Helping children with mental health emergencies

Kids' Link RI is an emergency support hotline that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This service will connect parents and caregivers to experienced clinicians to help them access children’s services in Rhode Island. Call Kids Link at 1-855-543-5465.

For more information on ways to support children and adolescents, visit the Growing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Mitch C. Otu, MD

Mitch C. Otu, MD

Dr. Mitch C. Otu is the clinical director of the Psychiatry Access, Continuity, and Evaluation (PACE) Clinic and assistant director of Psychiatric Emergency Services at Hasbro Children's Hospital