With COVID-19 on the rise, so is depression, anxiety, and self-harm amongst children and teenagers. With the holidays around the corner, the void of in-person friendships, school parties, family gatherings, and travel, and the ongoing absence of group sports and extracurriculars, continue to place our children at significant risk for depression and anxiety.
In the past three weeks in my practice, I have had a notable spike in admissions to the ER and the hospital as kids go back in lockdown, and the excitement and hopes for the end-of-year celebrations fizzle out. In fact, in San Diego, there was not a single bed available in the county last week for a child or teen inpatient psychiatry admission. Desperately, parents slept in their kid's bed, removed all locks from doors, and shadowed their child 24/7 for fear of their child engaging in self-harm.
As we keep a close eye on the red and purple tiers across the country, we are somehow missing the silent pandemic amongst our children and teens as they struggle to keep mentally afloat.
Isolated in their room, spending the majority of their time on Zoom, TikTok, and video games, teens could be at significant risk for self-harm and suicide. Younger kids are equally at risk as their natural source of pleasure and engagement, play dates and school activities, are seriously jeopardized.
It is imperative that parents and teachers be on the alert for the warning signs for depression and anxiety in kids to prevent the possibility of self-harm or even suicide. Early intervention is prevention and the sooner we can intervene, the more we can emotionally stabilize our young ones.
Some of the warning signs that parents and teachers need to look out for include:
- Withdrawal to dark rooms.
- Being sad and tearful.
- Refusing to participate in online school meetings.
- Avoiding and neglecting schoolwork.
- Spending endless hours alone on social media and watching Netflix and YouTube.
- Living “vampire lives”—sleeping all day and staying up all night.
- Being oppositional, irritable, angry, and explosive.
- Being disinterested and disengaged.
- Refusing to exercise or go outdoors.
- Using vape, marijuana, and other drugs to numb themselves.
- Poor or disrupted sleep.
- Increase in fatigue.
- Increase or loss of appetite.
- Weight gain or loss.
- Increase in nervousness.
- Increase in difficulty with transitions.
- Panic attacks.
- Physical/somatic symptoms—headaches, tummy aches, varying body aches and pains.
- Cutting and scratching their bodies in self-harm.
- Texting self-loathing or suicidal messages to friends and family.
There are many actions we can take to support our kids through these incredibly difficult times. Schools could step in and conduct mental health surveys for their students to catch those struggling significantly. Schools can also provide ongoing free tele-counseling services and support groups with their school counselors. Teachers, although doing their very best and stretched thin, can reach out to students for individual support and notify parents with concerns about their students' participation, engagement, and cooperation.
Family members may already be overwhelmed with juggling work, homeschooling kids, economic hardships, and their own mental health struggles. Seeking support from elderly family members may be impossible given the high risk for seniors amidst COVID-19. Parents' own isolation and stress levels may make it even more challenging to support their children's mental health needs.
Nevertheless, it is critical that parents and family members spend time with their children, checking in, playing games, participating in outdoor activities, developing hobbies, and simply listening and being with them. If there is any way that parents can infuse their children with hope, creativity, and fun, now is the time to do so in mega-doses. Kids don't have the abstract cognitive abilities to see long-term and typically live in the moment. The more emotionally connected we are to our children in these desperate moments and the more we can engage with them in ways that are fulfilling and meaningful to them, the better off we will be in fighting off this silent but dangerous pandemic amongst our children and teens.