On March 16th of 2020, public and private schools in NYC had to shut down as a direct result of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. As little was known about the virus, the best way to combat it at the time was to avoid it completely. Over time, studies confirmed that both COVID prevalence and deaths are lower in children than in adults. A major reason for this occurrence is that adults are more likely than children to have pre-existing medical conditions which place them at higher risk. For a little over a year, children and adolescents in NYC were subjected to remote learning as a result of quarantine, social distancing protocols, and the city not being ready for official reopening. This affected nearly 55 million students across the United States from Kindergarten through 12th grade (JamaPediatrics, 04.2020). Although children and young adults were not considered high risk groups and the majority of these students maintained their physical wellbeing, their mental health was being neglected. This leads to a vicious cycle, as the body and mind work in tandem: as mental stability deteriorates, so does physical health, and vice versa.
COVID-19 is a unique mass illness due to its asymptomatic transmission. On Dec 31, 2019 there were less than 50 cases in China, but in just a few weeks, that spread to over 7.8 thousand cases and 170 deaths across 18 countries (Washington Post, 03.2021). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of December 19, 2021, there have been over 5 million deaths due to COVID-19. Adolescence, as the transitory state from childhood to adulthood, is an especially fragile time, because it molds an individual into the person they will eventually become. Most young people who were quarantined experienced some degree of isolation and were likely negatively impacted by it. (JamaPediatrics, 04.2020). Panchal states that “during the pandemic, more than 25% of high school students reported worsened emotional and cognitive health” (Panchal, 05.2021). A lot of these children were affected by the concerns of their parents. So if, for example, they detected a parent’s worry about financial insecurity, they may have internalized it either consciously or subconsciously. Many children are also highly dependent on schools for nutrition, security/safe space, mental health services, educators and mentors, and extracurricular activities. Once the pandemic hit, these vulnerable children were stripped of these support systems. According to the CDC, “1 in 6 children aged 2-8 years (17.4%) has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder”, but that number changes to 1 in 5 children (22%) for “children living below 100% of the federal poverty level” (CDC, 03.2021). This, along with numerous other studies, has proven that vulnerability factors such as “developmental age...having special needs, pre-existing mental health condition, being economically underprivileged, and child/parent being quarantined due to infection or fear of infection” all significantly impact the mental health of our younger generations (Singh, 2020).
Additionally, children with SENDs (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) faced unique challenges as a result of the pandemic, as their “carefully developed routines have been disrupted, support networks have disintegrated, and parents have been asked to do a job that trained teachers find challenging, without any training” (Asbury, 07.2020). These children feel particularly overwhelmed, because they are under more pressure than less vulnerable families, yet they receive no extra support. LGBTQ youth are another example of a group drastically affected during the pandemic. Panchal states that a survey conducted on LGBTQ youth (ages 13-17) reported that 73% experienced symptoms of anxiety, 67% symptoms of depressive disorder, and 48% seriously considered attempting suicide.
Regardless of every child’s specific situation, the CDC warns that parents and guardians should be watching for behavioral changes in their children and teens at all times. Some of these behaviors include: “returning to behaviors they have outgrown, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past, poor school performance or avoiding school, use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, etc.” (CDC, 07.2021). These warning signs may foreshadow the development or exacerbation of poor mental health in their near or far future. However, if a child is not willing to speak to their parent(s) or adopt healthy coping mechanisms, no progress will be made. Unfortunately, this is why recognizing the physical symptoms that stress triggers in children is not enough on its own. We must also work to build trust and bond with the child in a safe, healthy, and supportive environment. Children and young adults need to feel loved and cared for, and know their opinions may be expressed without being judged. This is the only way they will open up and accept help. And both parents and children should feel encouraged to reach out to professionals that specialize in mental health care, whether they be neurotypical or neurodivergent. The American Rescue Plan Act is an example of funding being set aside for “pediatric mental health care access and youth suicide prevention.” As the state transitions to fully in-person learning, organizations such as the Department of Education (DOE) should especially be held responsible for providing our youth with resources and services that will cater to their individual needs. As these adolescents spend such a significant portion of their lives in the education system, parents and guardians need to be reassured that the next generation is being well taken care of.
Achenbach, Joel, et al. “A Viral Tsunami: How the Underestimated Coronavirus Took over the World.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Mar. 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/ health/2021/03/09/coronavirus-spread-world/.
Asbury, Kathryn, et al. “How Is COVID-19 Affecting the Mental Health of Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Their Families?” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Springer US, 31 July 2020, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/ s10803-020-04577-2?wt_mc=Internal.Event.1.SEM.ArticleAuthorOnlineFirst&utm_source=ArticleAuthorOnlineFirst&utm_medium=email&utm_content=AA_en_06082018&ArticleAuthorOnlineFirst_20200801&error=cookies_not_supported&code=36cde4e1-93d8-4633-8584-73ffaa3d4950.
“Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Schools.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/coronavirus-disease-covid-19- schools#:~:text=So far, data suggests,in this age group.
“Data and Statistics on Children's Mental Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Mar. 2021, www.cdc.gov/childrensmental health/data.html.