The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long time of uncertainty, stress, and grief for children across the US. We can see the effects in the increased mental health emergency visits among children (Reference: Leeb et al., 2020).
The pandemic has been a huge public health issue that has brought many disruptions that are linked with mental health issues for children, including: COVID-19 worries, online learning challenges, and parental conflict (Reference: Magson et al., 2021).
Public health measures needed to fight COVID-19, like business shutdowns and school closures, are also likely to add to mental health issues in children, like post-traumatic stress. And these issues will not necessarily go away once the measures end (Reference: Loades et al., 2020).
Also, effects such as losing childcare and increased worries about food and housing are sources of strain on parents. These strains link parents’ mental health with children’s behavioral health (Reference: Patrick et al., 2020).
Best practices & evidence
There are steps families can take to help their children, despite all of the issues affecting mental health:
The "Pause, Reset, Nourish" framework can also be a helpful way to increase resilience during this time of high stress and uncertainty
- Pause with slow, conscious breathing and an internal check-in about how your body is feeling
- Reset by doing something that helps you feel calm or confident, like looking at a photo that makes you smile, showing someone gratitude, or petting an animal
- Nourish yourself by doing something that reminds you of your own strength, such as singing, dancing, laughing, celebrating a meaningful achievement, connecting with a significant other, or doing a kind act
Although the pandemic has introduced many new stressors into children’s lives, routine health behaviors are still key in managing stress. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Families can support children in routine health behaviors such as:
- Avoiding excess caffeine
- Taking breaks
- Eating regularly
- Getting enough sleep
The pandemic has also brought experiences of grief that children may be feeling for the first time. Families can help children cope with grief by encouraging them to talk about their feelings or using other outlets like journaling and art.
Health equity lens
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of widespread stress and potential mental health issues, it is important to remember that US society is structured so that not all communities or people will experience the pandemic in the same way.
For example, research has found that girls and students of color report greater stress than boys and White children (Reference: Challenge Success, 2021). LGBTQ youth are also particularly vulnerable to mental health harms from loss of affirming social connections and extracurricular activities, as well as uncertainty about a future where they can live authentically. Additionally, with opportunities for social connection and education moving online, such technologies may not be accessible to children with disabilities or children with limited English language.
A Call to Action: Collaborate
There are actionable steps families can take to cope with the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, it is important to recognize the broader support needed to advance health equity and improve student mental health amid pandemic recovery. Teachers and school leaders can work to protect student mental health in the classroom. State and federal funding can also help provide relief for families to provide healthy home and school environments for students. For example, federal COVID-19 recovery plans can include financial support for school social workers to help parents and families cope with mental health issues (Reference: Wang et al., 2020). They can also provide financial support for school counselors to help students transition to a new school year, as well as identify and respond to warning signs (Reference: American School Counselor Association, 2020). Local governments can ensure access to nature and public lands as a protective measure for mental health (Reference: Razani et al., 2020).
School districts may also be able to provide evidence-based virtual counseling and therapy programs to provide students with flexible options for mental health services. There is no one-step solution to safeguard students’ mental health in these unprecedented times. It will take collaboration and coordination across the community.
See all resources for mental health action steps