From the time they are toddlers, children are taught to be resilient. When I was in high school, my after-school job was working as a pre-K teacher’s assistant. Each day, my group of 3-to-4-year-old charges would eagerly scramble outside for afternoon recess, and every day, inevitably, one of them would fall off the monkey bars or trip during a game of tag, their small but sturdy bodies tumbling onto the wood chips. Many would immediately burst into tears despite not being injured.
“You’re OK!” I’d yell, clipboard at my hip. “Shake it off!” And most of the time they did.
Over the past year, young people have been told repeatedly, “Hang in there!” or “It’s not so bad — other people have it much worse,” or “It’s OK!”
But it’s not — and they’re not. Resiliency is important, but it is not enough. America’s youth are facing a mental health crisis, one that experts say is as detrimental as the pandemic responsible for it.
Even before COVID, depression and anxiety were on the rise in children ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recognition and treatment of mental illnesses has typically been deferred to school counselors, who don’t have the bandwidth, or sometimes the necessary expertise, to handle it. While lawmakers have shown more interest in providing resources in response to the trauma induced by school shootings, mental health support is still largely reactive as opposed to being the ongoing support system that’s needed. But if the government has failed to address student mental health before and during the pandemic in any real, comprehensive way, what happens in the aftermath? Will students continue to be expected simply to “carry on,” business as usual, as they have been?
Vaccinations for all are on the horizon. The pandemic crisis will eventually end, and young people will become less lonely as normal life resumes. President Biden recently announced that every adult should be able to get vaccinated by May, a significant improvement from the administration’s original July timeline. Of course, young people will be at the end of the line to receive it, but at this point they’re used to waiting. Milestones that define teenagehood — like prom and graduation — have been disrupted. Extracurriculars and hobbies that help shape identity, such as sports or musical theater, have been canceled. Meanwhile, depression rates and suicide attempts may be on the rise among teens as they continue to struggle in isolation. Boston Children’s Hospital reports that it saw patient hospitalizations leap 47 percent in 2020 over the same period in 2019.
When it comes to mental health, Band-Aids (i.e., “Here’s a last-minute support group meeting you can join on Zoom!”) have had to suffice as teachers and parents navigate student mental health with little to no resources. But just because there is relief in sight doesn’t mean young people will magically feel better. School systems, mental health professionals, and lawmakers must start thinking about what’s to come. We need to prepare for surgery.
Every level of government must funnel more money and resources into mental health care, which starts with studying and identifying the unique challenges students have faced during the pandemic. This means that states need to use existing mental health commissions or establish new ones to investigate the unique needs of young people and how to meet them. More resources will be needed, though it’s impossible to say where they’re needed until the problem is properly studied. But some efforts have started.
Beginning Jan. 1, women and girls over age 13 became eligible to be screened for anxiety as part of their routine check-ups under the Affordable Care Act. This should be expanded to include all students of all ages. Earlier medical evaluations can be game-changers and should be standard practice regardless of gender. When it comes to treatment, therapy can be expensive. There should be greater insurance reimbursements as well as financial and educational incentives. Schools should partner with local colleges and universities to work with graduate students for credit to provide after-school group therapy.
Meanwhile, a deeper, more urgent reexamination is required. Many aspects of life from the pandemic are not sustainable. Teens have been overbooked and overcommitted, as have their parents, who have missed out on volleyball games and family dinners because of work-culture hustle. What if, instead, schools promoted flexibility and encouraged students to take mental health days when necessary? Before virtual school, teens had to wake up with the sunrise to make it out the door in time for their class. Now, they can sleep in (which ultimately helps their brain development), waking up a minute before Zoom school starts. What if those schools with 7:30 a.m. start times pushed them to 8:30, or even 9:00, once full-time in-person class begins? What if current COVID workarounds or solutions that are meant to be temporary actually benefited students’ mental health in a substantial way? And if this is the case, why hesitate any longer to implement these workarounds as permanent changes?
The long-term psychological effects of COVID are unknown but certain. We can’t afford to wait until after the pandemic is over to remedy the mental health crisis that continues to ravage the lives of young people. It needs to be done now.
Taylor Trudon is a writer and the founder of Late Bloomer, a newsletter and a community for teen girls, on Substack.