STATEN ISLAND, NY — As New York City lifts the safety restrictions put in place amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, signaling a return to normalcy, many kids and adolescents continue to struggle with the impact the health crisis has had on their mental health.
People of all ages have had mental health issues spurred by the pandemic, and that includes children and teenagers — several doctors told the Advance/SILive.com.
“During the pandemic, we definitely saw an increase in mental health issues with both kids and adolescents,” said Dr. Avinash Boddapati, a child/adolescent psychiatrist at Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH).
While many students across the United States are struggling to catch up academically because of potential learning loss, remote learning through the health crisis has also affected students’ mental health.
“I think the transition back to school just generally has been difficult for a lot of students, and then all the uncertainty with [school] closures and omicron. It’s just been challenging for a lot of students who we work with,” Rohini Singh, a staff attorney in the School Justice Project for Advocates for Children of New York, recently told the Advance/SILive.com when asked about data that shows an increase in Interventions and arrests among Staten Island students during the last quarter of 2021 compared to the same time in 2019 — before the coronavirus impacted schools.
Singh explained that there needs to be a “real acknowledgment” of the traumatic pandemic students and staff went through during the time.
“Every student carries a different experience into the classroom as a result of the pandemic, and it is our priority to meet them where they are and provide supportive schools for all students,” said Suzan Sumer, a spokesperson for the city Department of Education.
We recently spoke to health experts about the issues around youth and mental health amid the pandemic, including the signs, when to get help and resources available. Here’s what we learned.
How are children and teenagers impacted by the pandemic?
Dr. Brian McMahon, pediatric chair at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC), explained that humans are social beings, and were thrown into a pandemic that required isolation, mask-wearing and the cancellation of normal activities.
“Now you would think that coming out of it [the pandemic restrictions] that everything’s going to be fine,” McMahon said. “No, because there have been some problems that may have been submerged or hidden. Meanwhile, the pediatric patient has developed some abnormal ways of thinking and behaviour. And now, as they’re supposed to come out of this and resume activity, they’re not. It’s hard for them to make the readjustment.”
He explained that his office sees, on average, about two cases per week of adolescents having real mental health issues.
Boddapati said one of the biggest issues he is seeing is the adjustment period of children returning to school full-time.
“There is a lot of school refusal,” he said. “Kids have increased levels of anxiety, depression, since the return to school. It appears to be due to the adjustment, and you’re seeing some earliest trends of that kind of stabilizing a little bit after being out of school for almost a year and a half, or partly doing the hybrid.”
The health crisis forced all New York City students to shift to remote learning in March 2020. The 2020-2021 school year was a hybrid learning model, in which some students returned to campus part-time, learning remotely the rest of the time. The 2021-2022 academic year has seen students learning in-person full-time.
Boddapati explained that now adolescents are suddenly thrust back into the structure, requirements and demands placed on them when they are in school. And they if they have a hard time adjusting, it can lead to increased anxiety, depression and sleep problems.
“And there has been a lot of increased visits to the emergency room as well, because they feel overwhelmed. They’re unable to cope with all these stressors and demands,” he said.
What are the warning signs?
Some things to look out for in your child is any modifications in patterns, Boddapati said — such as changes in their pattern of communicating with friends and family.
“example, if they’re withdrawn, that would be a sign,” he said. “If there’s any changes in their sleep patterns, their eating patterns. That can also be indicative of them [mental health issues]. If parents are noticing that they’re not engaging in activities that they normally do or enjoy doing. That would be another thing to look out for.”
According to Joanne Pietro, assistant vice president of Behavioral Health Services/Staten Island Mental Health at RUMC, added that the change in a child’s behavior occurs over time. It can start out with small changes in appetite and sleep, and later parents may notice that they’re more irritable, have low energy, and have trouble concentrating at school.
“They are also reporting — there’s a lot of sadness, depression, and irritability in kids and teens right now,” she said. “They’ll see withdrawal from normal activities. Now the kids are finally getting back in school and some activities after school or clubs are beginning to meet either virtually or in person. There’s a withdrawal from their normal activities. And that’s a significant sign for depression, withdrawal and disengagement.”
Kids and teens should also be monitored for intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that are ritualistic, Pietro said — such as repeated acts that are distressing. An example would be a child who can’t leave the house until they wash their hands, or a ritual when it comes to how they dress.
What should parents do if they see these signs?
Boddapati said the first step is to communicate with the child to see what might be causing those changes.
Unless it is a safety concern, parents don’t need to bring them to the emergency room. If a child displays suicidal or non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors, or suicidal ideations, parents should visit the emergency room for evaluation.
Boddapati said, depending on how their life is impacted, children and adolescents can be brought in for an evaluation with a psychiatrist.
“A lot of schools have their counselors — that can be a starting point to kind of see if this is something, if it’s more like an adjustment thing, or if it’s more persistent thing,” he added.
Pietro added it could depend on a recommendation from a pediatrician, guidance counselor, or if parents are noticing signs, they can schedule their child to talk to someone, or go for an evaluation.
She noted that there are several mental health programs on Staten Island for kids of all ages, as well as school-based clinics and treatment programs.
“I think that if people are concerned that they see a difference in their child and it’s sustained, they see a sustainable difference, then they need to go and talk to somebody immediately,” said Pietro. “If there has been a change in their child or adolescent that lasts beyond a few days, or weeks, they need to get to somebody and just have a discussion.”
What are some resources?
While Staten Island generally has less resources in terms of mental health, Boddapati said telehealths can remove geographic — so kids and teens can see a therapist or psychiatrist virtually.
For confidential lines, kids and teens can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
SIUH and RUMC both have outpatient departments, while the Staten Island Mental Health Society also provides resources here. The society provides assistance through:
- Outpatient services for children, adolescents, and families.
- Developmental disability and early childhood services.
- Family support and community services.
- Preschool education services, including the country’s first hospital-based Head Start program.
To contact the Staten Island Mental Health Society, or request more information on available behavioral health services and programs, call 718-442-2225.
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