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Report: Depression, mental health in children worsened during pandemic

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Nov 5, 2021

Photo supplied, UNICEF

Julissa Richards' room on June 16, 2021, in Brooklyn, New York, where she has spent most of the pandemic.

Anxiety and depression are increasing among children, and it’s not just the pandemic causing the uptick.

According to the State of the World’s Children report published by UNICEF, more than 40% of children ages 10-19 across the globe suffer from a mental health illness. In the United States, depression among 12- to 17-year-olds has increased from 8.5% to 13.2% in the past 12 months.

The White House also reported earlier this month that emergency department visits among children with moderate to severe anxiety and depression increased in 2020. During that year, there was a 24% increase in emergency room visits for mental health reasons in children ages 5 to 11 and a more than 30% increase among 12- to 17-year-olds. Suicide, alarmingly, remains the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24.

The problem has increased so much that school districts have taken advantage of House Bill 323, which provides funding to place licensed mental health therapists directly inside the schools.

“These issues have risen significantly since the onset of COVID-19. I believe these numbers are higher since many kids likely do not get diagnosed if they are not taken to a professional,” said Whitney Hebbert, clinical director of Meadowbrook Counseling of Utah and clinical director of Utah Ketamine Therapies in Provo. “In addition to the pandemic, life is much faster paced today and very competitive. This puts a lot of pressure on children to excel and be successful.”

Hebbert said many children are involved in numerous activities and don’t get enough time to just be a kid. She said another contributor to increasing anxiety and depression is the high use of electronics.

“Kids can learn so much online and can understand more at a younger age, but that doesn’t mean they can handle more in life or the big feelings they have,” she said. “Many adults tend to expect more from children when they appear to be smarter or more capable. That can also add more stress to kids.”

Hebbert added that screen time means kids are playing less outside and with parents, siblings and friends. That can have an effect on their mental and emotional health if they are not getting the social engagement they need to thrive.

Natalie Sergent, a licensed psychologist with Intermountain Primary Children’s Medical Center, said by the time she sees children for a mental illness, they are having pretty bad symptoms. She also said she has seen an increase with the pandemic, but agrees there are other combinations as well.

“A big driver is kids are now exposed to a lot more adult topics and issues than in the past,” Sergent said. “Social media and internet kids are learning about news due to online presence. They’re just exposed more and more to real world stuff.”

Not only are more children suffering from anxiety and depression, they’re suffering from other mental illnesses like obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.

“OCD is a commonly seen disorder and it can vary widely,” Sergent said. “Some people will count and check things over and over. Other people will worry excessively and ask for reassurance.”

Other OCD symptoms include fear of contamination, a need for order and symmetry, religious obsessions, lucky and unlucky numbers, fear of harming oneself or relatives, and sexual or aggressive thoughts, Hebbert said.

But there are also other causes of mental illness in children. Studies have shown that viruses and bacteria can be correlated with mental illness, Hebbert said. Some research suggests that viruses are correlated to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Other research suggests that viral diseases can directly affect the brain and lead to mood disorders or cognitive impairment.

“We also know with mental health that there are genetic components and physiological components. Some of these can be situational and some can be more chronic,” Sergent said.

Symptoms of mental illness in children can differ from those in adult, both therapists said. The main difference, according to Hebbert, is that adults usually have more coping skills or a better mental and emotional capacity to manage their anxiety than children.

“Most children do not,” Hebbert said. “Their brains are still developing and they literally cannot regulate before the age of about 8 years old. Therefore, they have more behavioral manifestations of anxiety.”

Symptoms of anxiety in children can include difficulty concentrating, not sleeping or waking up with bad dreams, not eating properly, constant worry, consistent negative thoughts, quick to anger or being out of control during outbursts, feeling tense and fidgety, or using the bathroom a lot.

Depression symptoms in kids can include chronic anger, continuous feelings of hopelessness, social withdrawal, being more sensitive to rejection, changes in appetite, fatigue, low energy, loss of interest in things they previously found enjoyable, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and thoughts of suicide.

“It can look very different for different kids. Some kids internalize it and do not tell people how hopeless and sad they are. Some kids externalize their anxiety and get bullied or labeled as a ‘problem child,'” Hebbert said. “I have worked with children who get to the point of being suicidal because they are suffering in silence.”

Treatment in children can include medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

“We have a lot of strategies to teach kids and parents in order to help them understand thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are connected and how to learn how to manage triggers,” Sergent said. “It’s really important to be on the lookout for symptoms so you can get the child the appropriate care as soon as possible.”

Hebbert said she finds it’s really helps to be present and listen.

“It sounds really simple, but that alone sends the message that they matter, what they say and how they feel matters,” she said. “It builds self-esteem and can help calm anxiety. It is very protective for a child to have one trusted person they can talk to.”

Zachary Leifson, supervisor for mental health services at the Weber School District, said there are currently 15 mental health professionals within the district.

“They provide therapy services for the kids who are suffering from anxiety and depression and other mental health problems,” Leifson said. “Oftentimes, it takes weeks or months to get into a therapist in the community, but now we have them right inside our schools so they can get help much quicker.”

Leifson said the therapists are different than the school counselors because they focus solely on mental health, where a school counselor focuses mainly on success in school.

“Last year, we started an outreach screening program to help identify these kids who were having problems,” he said. “This year, we are offering it four times. However, any time a parent reaches out, the mental health therapist can provide that screening. Once they do that screening, the therapist can quickly identify if there could be anxiety, depression, OCD or suicidal ideation.”

Leifson said the program is unique because therapy sessions are recorded on a software program that is completely separate from software at the schools.

“It’s just one more layer of protection we have,” he said. “The therapists are also trained to understand the HIPPA laws and make sure everything is confidential and protected.”


SERVICES AVAILABLE

Weber School District will hold its next mental health screening from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday at T. H. Bell Junior High School, 165 W. 5100 South, Washington Terrace.

For help at Primary Children’s, call the intake number at 801-313-7770. You can also go to liveonutah.org, adaa.org and talktotweens.org.

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