How Parents Can Help Kids Struggling with the Current Mental Health Crisis

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How Parents Can Help Kids Struggling with the Current Mental Health Crisis

 Jim Windell

           In December, 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare public advisory warning of a widespread increase in mental health issues among children and adolescents. Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the new Surgeon General’s Advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.

           The advisory pointed out the alarming rise in youth suicide attempts and emergency visits for mental health concerns, particularly since the pandemic began. Noting that other agencies were also concerned about the mental issues of youth, Murthy called for a swift and coordinated response to this crisis as the nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

           “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread,” Murthy wrote in the advisory. “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade.”

           Murthy went on to state that “The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating.” His advisory went on to show how we can all work together to “step up for our children during this dual crisis.”

           Among Murthy’s recommendations were these:

  • Recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.  
  • Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions.  
  • Ensure that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care. 
  • Support the mental health of children and youth in educational, community, and childcare settings. And expand and support the early childhood and education workforce.  
  • Address the economic and social barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people, families, and caregivers.
  • Increase timely data collection and research to identify and respond to youth mental health needs more rapidly. This includes more research on the relationship between technology and youth mental health, and technology companies should be more transparent with data and algorithmic processes to enable this research.

           Since the Surgeon General’s report and recommendations,, a website that reports medical news, published an interview with child psychiatrist John Sargent. Sargent is a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine and is director and vice chair of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Tufts Children’s Hospital.

           Sargent was asked in the interview how this child mental health crisis came about. His response pinpoints that part of the problem relates to the pandemic. “All of a sudden, social interaction and physical closeness went from being comforting to being dangerous,” Sargent said. “Day-to-day life, which for kids is mostly school and activities, became risky and inaccessible. Add to that the expectation that families would be okay with everyone being at home – that parents would be able to work from home, monitor their kids’ academic lives, and occupy their kids’ social lives. I would call that unrealistic. Then, add the fact that the pandemic had a much greater effect on certain groups of people – those who were already stressed or experiencing hardship, people who are racially discriminated against, people who were more likely to experience disability or job disruptions, and families who didn’t have the necessary technology for their kids to go to school remotely. All of that became very disruptive to our usual ways of living.”

           Noting that Dr. Sargent said that the pandemic has not affected everyone equally, the interviewer asked how that plays out on the mental health spectrum.

           “What I’ve seen as a child psychiatrist is that the mental health crisis is actually two different crises,” Sargent replied. “People who have psychological, emotional, or developmental differences, who have high-risk jobs, or who are impoverished or homeless have been much more disadvantaged and much more endangered by the pandemic than people who have more resources. People who were barely getting by are now lower on the ladder, essentially. Then there are people who were doing okay but have seen significant disruptions and are plagued with the kinds of worries that accentuate anxiety and can lead to increased family and work difficulties.”

           He continued by saying that “The two crises are occurring at exactly the same time. The result is two sets of needs. For those at highest risk, the needs are for intensive services such as in-person therapy, hospitalization, and day-treatment programs. More routine mental health care such as outpatient counseling is needed for people whose lives are disrupted but perhaps are not in immediate danger. Both sets of needs are increasing dramatically.”

           Sargent was asked to provide advice for parents who see their kids struggling. His response was this: “I often hear this when I talk to a neighbor or a friend: ‘My kid is having trouble; what should I do?’ I say be caring, be warm, be supportive, be understanding. Try to figure out what you need to do to help them change their lives in a successful and confident way. Make sure you pay attention to what your kid is doing. Make sure you help your kid understand that negative emotions are part of life, and that some negative emotions they can deal with and some they may need help dealing with. It’s all of that, together with trying to stay as happy as you can as a family.”

           Sargent also said in connection with what parents can do: “The best antidepressants are competence—the sense that one can do something effectively—and connections—the sense that one is loved and cared about. The best ways to approach anxiety are through thoughtful attention to how risky something really is and helping people through periods of worrying and concern so they can realize that in fact things will be okay, and that they can make them okay. You allow people to express their negative feelings, to complain about the pandemic, to say that virtual school isn’t any fun or isn’t helping them. You want to help your children build a sense of resilience and a sense of well-being in the face of challenges.”

           To read the full interview, find it here.



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