Addressing children’s mental health post-pandemic | Opinion

The global coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone’s mental health in one way or another, but it has been particularly difficult for children and adolescents. It is a situation that children have never encountered, and although we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, nobody knows for sure if we will ever go back to what we all considered normal.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) has long prioritized students’ social-emotional well-being and mental health. However, the pandemic has posed additional challenges that the school district has never experienced. A proactive approach has been taken to support students’ emotional and academic needs when schoolhouse doors closed temporarily and a pivot to online learning took place.

After welcoming students back to the schoolhouse in October, their needs continued to be addressed using multi-tiered systems of support that included prevention, intervention, and intensive assistance, through both school-based and community-based services and resources. This approach has been a key factor in ensuring the needs of students and their families were met during these challenging times, whether learning took place in-person or online.

Research has shown that people cope best with stress and uncertainty when they have sufficient levels of social support. However, during the pandemic, social interactions were intentionally reduced to prevent the spread of the virus.

Not being able to go to school or meet with family and friends has made the pandemic even harder on our mental health because a coping mechanism to deal with stress has not been available.

Studies also show that children who suffer from loneliness are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, and limited social interactions during the pandemic could lead to higher levels of post-traumatic stress. But the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health goes beyond loneliness. Children live in socially constructed environments that include engaging regularly with many people, even when we were in a lockdown. If those people’s mental health is negatively affected, children notice that, which affects them negatively as well.

With students learning online, the number of children who have been exposed to parents and families fighting at home has increased over the last year. Children whose families were already struggling with violence and mental health issues before the pandemic are at the highest risk of facing challenges themselves.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) remains an essential element throughout MDCPS when supporting and addressing students’ social, emotional and academic well-being. School-wide programs and activities, and those built directly into classroom routines, are designed to help students feel safe and validated with enhanced opportunities for students to build relationships.

Nicklaus Children’s Health System has witnessed first-hand the toll the pandemic has taken on children’s mental health. And the situation may be even worse than it appears as parents have skipped check-ups because they worried about getting infected with COVID-19 when visiting a doctor’s office. In addition, they may have lost their jobs and, consequently, their health insurance and are now unable to pay for their children’s healthcare.

Because of that, many children have not received the professional help they need in a timely fashion. Since the onset of the pandemic, mental health professionals at Nicklaus Children’s and other pediatric healthcare providers are seeing many more children and adolescents who require hospitalization because of increased suicidal thoughts and anxiety. The number of new depression diagnoses has also increased.

MDCPS has worked tirelessly to reach out to and support students, leaving no stone unturned. In staying current with our Public Health and Medical Experts Task Force and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in partnership and collaboration with Nicklaus Children’s, The Children’s Trust and other contracted community agencies, the school district continues to provide a streamlined process to assist students in a timely manner.

This process assesses students to ensure they are provided with the appropriate mental and behavioral services, including telehealth counseling, at no cost to families. As we look ahead to the next school year and what that may bring, MDCPS is ramping up programs and services with our partners to ease the transition to summer and fall.

As more people are vaccinated, we hope that we will be able to put the pandemic behind us once and for all. But the sad truth is that children’s mental health issues will not disappear overnight.

Once the pandemic ends, we may continue to see an increase in children and adolescents who need mental health care before we see the need decrease again, especially with children returning to in-person schooling when the new school year begins this August. The good news is that most mental health experts agree that we can address this issue successfully if we fully commit to it and are open about the challenges.

If there is one silver lining that has resulted from the ongoing pandemic, it is that, as a society, we are finally paying more attention to the mental health of children. We are optimistic that the children affected by mental health problems will lead healthy, successful, and productive lives when readily identified, and appropriately cared for.

MDCPS and Nicklaus Children’s are fully committed to directly addressing this issue. By working together as a community, we can ensure our children receive the help they deserve.

Alberto M. Carvalho is the Superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools. Matthew Love is President & CEO of Nicklaus Children’s Health System.