Almost everyone I know can answer where they were when the United States went into lockdown because of COVID-19. Most can remember the emotions they felt when they realized how unknown their futures were. Although early fear of the virus was mostly in regard to the physical impact of its symptoms, the effects of the pandemic on mental health were much more significant than initially realized.
According to the World Health Organization, there are many reasons why some experienced mental health decline as a result of contracting COVID-19 and undergoing the COVID-19 lockdowns. Specifically, moving learning online greatly impacted the mental health of children in school who had no idea when they would be back into their normal routines. Social isolation is proven to worsen cognitive development, and during the pandemic, it certainly exacerbated mental health struggles for children and teens who could not truly understand their circumstances. When children and teens experience social isolation, this not only impacts their mental health, but it also affects their growth and development.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has analyzed these repercussions on school-aged children, citing a survey of 1,000 parents taken in 2020. The APA reported that a large percentage said the pandemic took a significant toll on their child. With high school students specifically, about one in three parents disclosed they felt their child was “unhappy” and “depressed” much more than usual. Research shows that unhappy and depressed moods are associated with lower grade point averages and higher likelihoods of dropping out of school.
Student’s mental health was also impacted as some lost the safe space of school when learning moved online. During the pandemic, domestic violence increased by 8%, as drastically more families spent most of their time at home. Additionally, students were separated from schools and school social workers, who play a crucial role in identifying mental health needs.
Finally, the infection and mortality rates of COVID-19 have certainly affected children and teens’ mental health. There have been over 100 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States from January 2020 to April 2023. Of those 100 million confirmed cases, there have been over 1 million COVID-related deaths, making the virus tragic for those with family members or friends included in this statistic. It is completely understandable why children and teens have grown more anxious, seeing the high likelihood of being affected by COVID-19, whether through sickness or death.
The Virus and the Public’s Response
The Biden administration terminated the national emergency designation for COVID-19 on May 11, 2023, meaning that the U.S. is now shifting to focus on recovering from the pandemic rather than addressing issues as if we are still in the middle of it. As we transition as a nation into recovery mode, it is a great time to begin targeting the decline in American citizens’ mental health, especially that of school-age children and teens. The federal government should consider implementing policies or regulations in order to prevent further decline in this generation’s mental health. Good public policy should encourage schools, health care providers and communities to make resources more available. Further, it could validate the emotional impact on this generation and begin to heal all that they have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic. This can and should begin on a community level, for when we advocate for the emotionally vulnerable, we can help get them the help they need. We must come together to create safe environments that foster mental health support and recovery rather than denying negative emotions. This is essential, as these affected children and teens are now becoming young adults and desperately need resources to help navigate their mental health while preparing for adulthood.
2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 reminds us of God’s character as a compassionate comforter: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” As Christians, we should be encouraged that God equips us to help others in the same way he does with each of us. As we lift up our concerns and experience God’s comfort, we learn how to help others experiencing similar emotions.
The Center for Public Justice’s guideline on public welfare calls us to be each other’s neighbors during times of need by ensuring the health–in this case, mental health–of others. The APA informs us that we can help one another by being attentive to and spotting the signs of decrease in each other’s mental health. The best and easiest way to do this is by simply listening and allowing others a safe space to talk. In doing so, we create a healthy environment that acknowledges our neighbors as precious image-bearers of God.
Steps in the Right Direction
The federal government, realizing the grave nature of the youth mental health crisis, is taking steps to bolster our mental health care system. For example, the executive branch is taking initiative to address the shortage in behavioral health providers. About one-third of American citizens live in an area where they have less mental health care resources available than the minimum needed for the population. However, one positive impact of the pandemic is the rise in virtual health care options, which allowed many people to resume part of their life during lockdown and are still of use today. These virtual options enable people to reach out for mental health care from the comfort of their homes. Research backed by psychologists supports that this method is almost as effective as in-person therapy.
The Biden administration is also implementing school-based intervention. Project LAUNCH has been created to ensure that systems responsible for supporting children foster both their cognitive and emotional development. This could include school-based mental health interventions that present students with more counselors and mental health resources. The goal of these policies is to address students’ issues at their vulnerable age to give them the tools and help needed. Approximately half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14, making childhood and adolescence a critical time to act. While most students have made the transition back into in-person schooling, these mental health resources could be beneficial as they adapt to life as it is now. These resources also create healthy habits for youth to acknowledge mental health and be educated in ways to help others.
Children’s mental health can also be positively affected through their own neighborhoods. One factor from the pandemic that negatively affected children was the social isolation from others their age. This prevented the social interactions that children would normally take part in. The children are not necessarily behind, but they do need extra time to gain confidence in themselves and their social skills. Now that restrictions from interacting with others have been lifted, we can implement programs to help children practice their social skills outside of school. After-school programs hosted by neighborhoods or parents can help children improve their self-esteem and be another resource to help children during their most impressionable years.
The mental health epidemic in children and teens cannot be taken care of overnight. However, by acknowledging the issue on governmental and communal levels, the United States will be taking initiative to create healthier environments for our youth. Only those who are willing to get help will benefit from the support that is offered. We can not force a person into something that they are not fully invested in. However, we can provide the resources for when or if they ever become ready.
As we move forward from the pandemic, its effects will live with American youth as they grow into adulthood. The lack of resources needs to be addressed as we slowly shift into this epidemic of the mental health crisis. There needs to be an investment in the youth of our tomorrow by taking care of their emotional needs today. We are called to act as servants to our neighbors, representing God’s image by helping those in need.
Angel Ramirez was a Communications Intern in the Spring of 2023. She is a senior at Baylor University studying Political Science.