By Mahvash Majeed, MD FAAP
In recent years, awareness of mental health issues in our youth have been steadily increasing. social isolation and the use of technology and social media is a major cause of this worsening mental health crisis. With the COVID-19 pandemic and mandated social distancing the situation has drastically been worsening. In addition to social distancing and isolation, having to witness a global health crisis is traumatic to the underdeveloped minds of our youth. As the medical world continues to search for answers to cure, prevent, and heal us physically, we need to realize that healing the “secondary pandemic” of worsening mental health needs to become a stronger and lasting focus. It takes months for youngsters to be seen by a mental health specialists because the problem has outgrown the resources available. Parents have become more worried and at a loss for how to help their depressed or anxious youth. Core social groups and the social network is the most important aspect in the mind of a youngster. To medical providers we see this as a normal, healthy, and acceptable part of growing up. In fact, we encourage our youth to go outside, turn off their screens and socialize in person. We push them to join activities and sports teams to improve their teamwork and ability to communicate well. We find this to be the healthiest way to promote a well-rounded, healthy, happy, and safe individual. The COVID- 19 pandemic has made us pull them away from this ideal for the time being. We are now left with no choice but to tell our youngsters to stay indoors, do their schooling on a computer, and do not participate in as many sports and activities.
This leaves them with precious few social outlets and their worlds in disarray. Academically this is putting a strain on our youth as well. I have spoken to numerous patients in my office who state that focus is harder for them. They require a structure and a teacher in a classroom to learn.
The environment of a school, a place where our youth gather to learn, play, and grow, is where they thrive. The lack of this functional space has led to additional anxieties and low mood overall. The outlets of sportsmanship and school activities are no longer a major source of the self-esteem boost that our youth needs. Youngsters’ daily routines are not as regimental which means less healthy sleep and diet habits. Good sleep and diet are essential for health and Happiness.
It is important, now more than ever, that pediatric medical providers and parents pay close attention to the emotions of our youth. Psychological and physical health go hand in hand and directly affect one another. The human race is resilient, having fought many battles to keep ourselves and our youth strong and healthy. We should continue to dedicate adequate time and energy to help our depressed and sad youth to keep them healthy and happy in the future. After all, they deserve a happy future to look forward to. With this in mind, we should remind youngsters that the pandemic and any of life’s struggles for that matter, are temporary. We canteach them about the ups and downs of life, so they do not get bogged down and burdened. How many struggles have we had to overcome in our youth, that now don’t seem like they were so bad? Let’s give our youth some perspective. If we as adults look on the bright side and act as positive role models, then they will mirror these behaviors and moods. Encouraging a good diet and sleep routine will help them to stay regimental. Getting some exercise with walking, yoga, or dancing should be part of the daily routine for a healthy mind and body. How we treat our physical bodies reflects on how our minds feel.
We should be encouraging relaxation and staying away from screens including cell phones, tablets, computers, television, and video games towards the end of the day. After being on screens for school and homework for the majority of the day, youngsters should put away these unnatural apparatuses in order to prepare for quality sleep. Filling the bedroom sleeping space with aromatherapy and soft music as well as sipping on herbal teas will help relax their minds and bodies for sleep. Encouraging quiet breathing and meditation time will relax their minds as well. In fact, we should try doing it with them. Mindfulness and keeping our mind and body quiet allows a nice reset to the worries and pressures of the day.
Let’s help our youth focus on the good and positive in their lives by talking about what they love and are grateful for. We should encourage them to write it down or draw it out in a daily “feelings” journal. Artistic and written expression is therapeutic and has great healing powers for the burdened soul. Youngsters can use the journal to state exactly what makes them happy and what they desire to make them happier. Safe social networking, either with a social worker, counsellor, family members, or peers, should be encouraged. We should not allow our youth to stay couped up in their bedrooms or beds and succumb to low mood. Encouraging them to do their schoolwork together in a small safe group who regularly see each other will be a nice outlet for them to look forward to. A mini classroom or study group like this is a positive peer group support system.
Nowadays few youth take it upon themselves to figure out what they are good at or enjoy. Without a school system to encourage clubs and activities, extracurriculars have become rare. All humans have something they like doing that does not involve being on a screen. We should encourage our youth right now, to discover what they are good at or enjoy. Whenever I encourage patients in my office to think about what their interests are, they all come up with something interesting and artistic. Cooking and baking is an area of interest for many of our youth. They would benefit from looking into recipes and being creative in the kitchen. Some of our youth like arts, crafts, coloring, drawing, or painting. Others like to write, read, or even write poetry. We should encourage them to set aside time everyday to develop these skills. We can point out to them that this pandemic has given us the ability to enjoy some quiet hobbies we may not have otherwise had time to do. This will not only distract them from the negative aspects of the world we live in today, but it will boost their own morale and self-esteem. Some of our youth’s anxiety or depression have already reached the point of a more serious concern that requires psychiatric care or medication. We should not sweep it under the rug or figure they are “just being a kid or a teenager.” We should address these issues right away. Primary care providers are becoming more capable of addressing mental health issues and if support is needed for this, resources are available through Project Teach NY https://projectteachny.org. For families, additional resources and support are available through the National Alliance on Mental Illness website https://www.nami.org.
If a more severe depression or anxiety is suspected treatment should never be delayed. Remember, positive vibes can only attract more positivity. Let’s work hard and stay positive and calm. Like everything else – we will get through this together.
Mahvash Majeed, MD FAAP
St. Mary’s Healthcare, Memorial Pediatrics