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Pandemic, Then War: The Impact on Our Kids

Let’s mend the broken mental healthcare system for kids.

Key points

  • We don’t know to what extent our children internalize the trauma their Ukrainian peers are experiencing.
  • Children and young adults who are deeply affected by these events may need more help processing and controlling their anxiety.
  • Young people are six times more likely to complete mental health treatment when integrated into their academic instruction.

Co-authored by Mayer Bellehsen, Ph.D., director of the Center for Traumatic Stress, Resilience and Recovery at Northwell Health.

Trauma reverberates.

The war in Ukraine makes that clear. In watching a nation suffer the horrors of war, we’re enveloped in images of families saying goodbye to loved ones joining the fight against Russia and children fleeing.

And make no mistake: our children are watching.

We don’t know to what extent our children internalize the trauma their Ukrainian peers are experiencing. When might these images and stories affect our children? For some kids, the war in Ukraine may be an emotional one-two punch as we continue to dig out from under the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought children unprecedented mental health challenges.

War headlines can activate experiences and emotions for people like veterans and first responders. Seen up-close, unfiltered, and via personal screens, the war can deeply affect our children. It can put war experiences directly in their hands and, along with them, information, disinformation, graphic images--and a significant emotional impact.

Television also transformed Americans’ experience and tolerance for war when it broadcasted the Vietnam conflict living rooms in the 1960s. Although gathering an entire family around a TV console after dinner may not be the current look for most, children may be absorbing the Ukraine war on their own, with filters and supervision varying from family to family.

We can offer strategies for how parents can explain troubling news to children and try to learn more about how they’re feeling and processing events. We can recognize that:

  • Media coverage can remind us of upsetting events.
  • A range of reminders can set off emotions—from people, places, and sounds to smells, feelings, or even the time of day.
  • Airing concerns may help kids understand and manage their feelings
  • Supporting victims and participating in locally-based recovery efforts can give children a sense of purpose, especially in the face of events that feel out of control.

Children and young adults who are deeply affected by these events and need more help processing and controlling their anxiety may face a greater challenge. It can be tough to access quality behavioral health services. Like the pandemic, the war in Ukraine presents exposes shortcomings in the availability and accessibility of quality care.

We have too few professionals in this realm, and they’re badly stretched. The fractured state of psychological services in the United States too often lands many families in emergency rooms as a “first point of care” for kids’ mental health help.

No longer finding it possible to ignore the problem, the government launched the American Rescue Plan last fall. It acknowledges issues of access, affordability, and disparities with a multi-pronged approach and many networks of services. President Joe Biden highlighted it in his State of the Union address.

Even before the pandemic began, President Biden said, children, struggled with “bullying, violence, trauma and the harms of social media.” The pandemic caused children’s lives and education to be “turned upside down.”

He explained that the American Rescue Plan gives schools money to hire teachers and help students make up for lost learning. He urged parents to hold schools accountable for providing those resources and become tutors and mentors for our kids.

School-based programs put kids’ mental health services on the right track. Young people are six times more likely to complete mental health treatment and meet more success with treatment when we integrate these services into their academic instruction.

The rescue plan makes notable strides, but its state-by-state strategy does little to address the country’s fragmented approach. Our kids need a more permanent coordinated answer. We need to provide long-term, trauma-informed care that treats our children’s mental health like the public health challenge it is.

We need a body that will track programs and set standards. We need it to address specific long-term goals for monitoring and repairing the problems of ongoing professional shortages in this field and the financial constraints that keep too many families from accessing care.

Children are naturally resilient. Our job is to help them grow and develop skills to navigate a complex world of challenges, problems, and, yes, sometimes trauma, war, and pandemics. We can do that better coordinated, long-term investments that support us as we guide and inspire kids to become, eventually, resilient adults.

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