The Pandemic’s Heavy Toll on Our Children’s Mental Health

Bipolar Disorder In Children Concept. Little african american girl and her parents at reception of psychologist, kid sharing her feelings with doctor

Charlene Muhammad | California Black Media

The Covid-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the health, finances, and mobility of people around the world, affecting almost everyone on the planet. 

Youth, in particular, have been experiencing an uptick in mental health cases, including depression, in a trend U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is calling an emerging crisis.

On Dec. 7, Murthy released a 42-page health advisory drawing the country’s attention to the “urgent” need to help youth facing mental health problems. He said one in three students in the U.S.  say they experience sustained periods of sadness and hopelessness. That number represents a 40 % increase from 2009 to 2019.

The pandemic has made those conditions worse.

“The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation,” said Murthy. “Especially in this moment, as we work to protect the health of Americans in the face of a new variant, we also need to focus on how we can emerge stronger on the other side. This advisory shows us how we can all work together to step up for our children during this dual crisis.”

Recently, a panel of experts tackled the issue during a news briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services titled “The Pandemic’s Heavy Toll on Teen Mental Health.”

Michelle Cabrera, Executive Director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association (CBHDA), spotlighted the health needs of minority youth.  She explained that all over the nation — and in California — youth are suffering from a mental health crisis, leading to increasing numbers of suicide and high levels of anxiety in schools.

“The numbers of children and youth in acute mental health crises shot up two and sometimes three-fold. We have had children as young as eight-years-old who have been hospitalized due to suicidal ideation,” stated Cabrera.

Behavioral health experts say transitioning students back to in-person learning results in higher rates of children and youth experiencing mental health crises, she said.

According to Cabrera, existing programs lack support for youth in Black and Native populations, and records show that major disparities are also present among professionals within the behavioral health field.

“For example, the access to services and programs that may be used in White communities to combat mental health problems are not made available in Black communities,” she said.

Cabrera mentioned that there is also a career crisis in behavioral health, and that by 2022, these benefits will be put in place to help abate the employment crisis in California and all over the nation.

“The pandemic has also changed the statistics about drug and substance abuse in America,” Cabrera continued. “Data has shown an increase in alcohol and opioid consumption in young people, who are also experiencing a lot more overdoses because of their consumption of fentanyl in the drugs that are used,” she said.

Youth also struggle with returning to school physically, bullying, and a lack of programs to address their mental health issues.

Dr. Latonya Wood is the director of clinical training at Pepperdine University in Malibu. She delved specifically into the data about Black children who are suffering from mental health-related issues. She explained that depression is being expressed and understood differently among Blacks.

For example, young, Black males interprete their emotions and mental conditions differently. They may not act in ways that are typically associated with depression, such as sadness or melancholy. Black youth typically translate those emotions into aggression and more physical reactions.

In addition, the pandemic has amplified some of the disconnections in the Black community, said Dr. Wood.  She explained that there has not been consistent help in public health organizations that serve Black communities. 

“Seldomly, there is relatability to the Black community. So African American are going to be lacking resources because they don’t know how to reach them,” she said.

Wood said historically Black people have not had a reason to fully trust mental health providers. A recent survey asked a group of Black youth about mental health care during COVID.  It found that Black youth do not feel like mental healthcare providers care for them, that they only want money, and they do not understand the lived experiences, according to Dr. Wood.

“I think that really reflects the lack of culturally informed and trauma-informed care and really understanding the experiences of Black youth in some ways were traumatic during COVID,” said Dr. Wood.”

More Black people are seeking Black providers, but they number just short of about 4% of the psychologists in America, according to a 2020 Workforce Study, completed by the American Psychological Association, she continued.

As a result, Black people suffer usually long wait times to even be seen by a therapist or to receive care. Wood stressed that finding the right care for people dealing with mental disorders in the Black community is very important.

Solutions for these issues were suggested at the level of community-based care provided at places where people congregate like school, church, and the barbershop, among others. Those spaces can serve as supportive places venues where mental health care or interventions can be accessible.

“The youth need support systems in place in order to help guard against the extreme negatives that come with poor mental health,” said Wood.


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