The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the physical health of millions, but it has affected individuals’ mental health. While the physical impact of COVID-19 has been reported as being “minimal” for youth, the emotional toll that COVID-19, compounded with the civil unrest, is having a substantial impact on our youth today.
It is estimated that one in six people experience a mental health crisis within their youth and this number goes up when a community crisis occurs, such as natural disasters, such as tornadoes, or global pandemics, such as the Coronavirus. Without support, this crisis over time can lead to additional mental illness, substance use, and/or suicidal behaviors. Dr. Joshua Gordon, psychiatrist and Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, warns that we should pay more attention to these numbers, particularly for black youth. Dr. Gordon states, “we have noticed now over the last two or three years a startling increase in the suicide rates amongst Black youth, and we must recognize that we do not understand the reasons for it fully, nor have we figured out what we need to do to try to counter this disturbing trend Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle adds, “There have been more suicides so far this year in the Black community than in 2019. Most notably, we see an increase in youth suicide. The youngest victim this year was just nine years old.”
While the statistics may seem startling, there are things that we can do to prevent this crisis and help youth manage their mental health during this challenging time. The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested a few tips to help manage the mental health changes that your children may experience this time, such as:
- Create a space for emotions to be expressed. WHO states that children may appear clingy at this time or may begin to act out and express anger or agitation. At this time, it can be essential to create a space for youth to express how they feel. Listen and be supportive. If possible, create opportunities for them to engage in playful and relaxing activities (Pinterest often has a list of family and youth activities that could be useful).
- Stick to a balanced schedule as much as possible. In addition to creating a safe space for youth to express their feelings and be heard, maintaining a consistent schedule can also help. Consistency and schedules can provide a sense of safety and security for youth, particularly during uncertain times. As much as possible, try to keep a consistent schedule that consists of both learning activities, but also relaxation, such as deep breathing, and getting regular exercise. Encourage them to continue to engage in activities that they enjoy in a safe manner, such as playing basketball in the yard, if possible, or connecting with friends via video chat.
Be honest with youth. Often, it can be tempting to leave information out to protect children. However, it can be more challenging to deal with the impact of that lack of knowledge should something happen in the future. Providing information empowers the youth to take steps to keep themselves safe, engaging in handwashing behaviors, or learning ways to advocate for their needs within the community. There are ways to communicate this information in a way that is age-appropriate, informative, and reassuring. For example, you could let the youth know what might happen, such as someone getting sick, and informing them that the person may go to the hospital to help them feel better. You can also reach out to local youth organizations for support in ways to talk about police brutality or to see if they have groups or projects that are addressing social injustice (you can find a list of youth-based organizations doing this work here). You can also check out books like this to help discuss COVID-19 with youth.
While we have yet to see the full impact of the events on human beings, we can do things to support ourselves and our youth at this time. Seeking help when you are feeling unwell (physically and/or emotionally), not only helps you heal but can also help members of your family heal as well. Remember to be patient with yourself and others during this time, as we all work to get through this.
Chante’ Gamby is a writer and therapist passionate about social justice and empowering others to live their best lives. You can follow her on Facebook at Fringefam, Instagram@fringegram, or on her website, www.fringefam.com.