As an adult, it is hard to go a day without talking or thinking about COVID-19. It has consumed our lives, changed our routines and created feelings of tension, worry, anxiety and loss. Imagine processing these feelings as a child or adolescent.
As Jim Mucia from the Brien Center recently put it, “We sent kids to their rooms for a year.” They were isolated from their day-to-day interactions with friends and academic figures. They experienced a sense of loss for the moments and connections they will never know. Would they have scored the winning point, got the lead in the play, been debate team champs or just had some fun with their friends at the dance?
This fall, we asked these same kids to resume life as it was, without adequate time to acknowledge and process what has happened — and without providing them, their parents and our community with the strategies to cope. What did that look like in our schools? At the elementary level, children entering third grade were the last round of students to experience a full year of in-person learning. Sophomores had barely stepped foot in their high school before September.
Looking deeper, we see the young people who were struggling, or just making it, before the pandemic. They are suffering the worst now. Some who fared worse in particular were youth of color; LGBTQI+ youth; youth who had mental health challenges before the pandemic; youth who experienced financial, food and housing insecurity; and youth whose parents were front-line workers.
Although The Who’s lyrics say differently, our kids are not alright. Within the past three months, two important alerts were distributed with minimal fanfare. In late October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared that the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency. The US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy released his own advisory, Protecting Youth Mental Health, in which he provides startling statistics with actionable steps for all of us to address the mental health challenges our children face.
For Berkshire County young people in crisis and their families, the absence of psychiatric beds has meant long waits, hours of driving to programs across the state and the fear and desperation of not being able to get help at their worst moments.
While pediatricians, teachers, counselors, superintendents, principals and parents are ringing the alarm bell that the kids are not OK, the only response from state and federal leaders is that schools must stay open and make up for lost learning. While it is important that students are in school for their social well-being and to continue their educations, we are not adequately addressing the toll on their mental health that these past two years have made.
From the declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics et al: “We have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges … over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic. ... [W]e have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.”
Meanwhile, Christine Vestal wrote in an article for the Pew Charitable Trusts: “The grief, anxiety and depression children have experienced during the pandemic is welling over into classrooms and hallways, resulting in crying and disruptive behavior in many younger kids and increased violence and bullying among adolescents. For many other children, who keep their sadness and fear inside, the pressures of school have become too great.”
Article after article tell us that this is true in schools across the country and in our own backyard. The only way for students to get back on track academically is to reduce their mental health barriers to learning.
That is not just a school issue — it is a community issue. We need funding and a coordinated approach to develop our community’s interventions and resources. Now more than ever, we need to build a network of support. Our young people need to rebuild their connections to reestablish their well-being and safety.
In Amanda Gorman’s poem “New Day’s Lyric,” she ends with these words: “Know what we’ve fought / Need not be forgot nor for none / It defines us, binds us as one / Come over, join this day just begun / For wherever we come together / We will forever overcome.”
If you would like to join the conversation and be part of our coming together for our young people, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 413-448-8281, ext. 236.