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The emotional health of Chicago children has taken a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey out of Lurie Children’s Hospital.
The survey of 1,500 parents from across the city found that nearly half had talked to their children’s primary care doctors about mental or behavioral health concerns within the last six to 12 months.
Among younger children, ages 2 to 11, 23% were acting out more during the pandemic with behaviors such as tantrums; 19% were showing more clinginess, 11% had more nightmares, 8% had more headaches and 8% had more stomach pains.
The findings didn’t come as a surprise to Dr. Matthew Davis, director of Lurie’s Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute, which conducted the survey.
But he said the study casts light on how broadly the problem has been experienced across the entire city of Chicago, and how hard it can be to find help. Eighteen percent of parents surveyed said they could not get the mental or behavioral health services they wanted for their child.
“We have a behavioral health epidemic for children,” Davis said.
“The level of need, the way in which it affects children of all ages and the challenges that we have in responding in our health care system are all very concerning to the pediatric community and to families across the city.”
Davis said there’s a shortage of child psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, both in Chicago and across the U.S. One way health care professionals are responding is by training pediatricians to address basic behavioral health problems.
If a child is having problems such as not eating regularly, not interacting with friends or family members in the usual way, falling back on milestones such as potty training, or experiencing headaches or abdominal pain, the child’s primary care doctor may be able to help, Davis said.
He pointed to the case of one of his patients: A teen who really missed in-person learning was having a great deal of trouble learning remotely and was feeling increasingly disconnected from family members.
Davis worked with the child’s mother to establish an after-school conversation time, in which the teen could chat remotely with classmates about the day’s lessons.
“The teenager’s mood improved, and we were able to make progress,” Davis said.
A child’s primary care doctor can also screen for more serious problems and provide referrals to behavioral health specialists.
A report on the survey co-authored by Davis says parents can reach out to school administrators or school social workers to learn about behavioral health resources, and Lurie’s Center for Childhood Resilience provides information and tips for parents. Other options include the NAMI Chicago helpline at 833-626-4244 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or online.
Davis said a lot of health professionals are hopeful that young people’s mental and behavioral health will improve as the pandemic recedes.
“I think it’s too early to tell what the longer-term behavioral wellness is going to be for young people,” he said. “We’re going to need to pay close attention to this as we continue to make progress in the pandemic.”