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Healthy Children, Healthy Future: Understanding the Importance of Pediatric Mental Health

Healthy Children, Healthy Future: Understanding the Importance of Pediatric Mental Health

Each May, we celebrate National Children’s Mental Health Week to underscore the importance of nurturing positive mental health among our nation’s youth. This year, from May 1st-7th, the awareness week will emphasize the vital importance of building strong emotional health for children’s long-term development and overall wellness.

Focusing on the well-being of our children is arguably more important than ever before. In October 2021, in the midst of rising mental health emergencies and an increased pediatric suicide rate, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) released a joint statement on the worsening child and adolescent mental health crisis – and officially declared a “National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.” Within their statement, the organizations jointly issued a call to action, urging all policymakers to advocate for real political change that would strengthen the country’s funding and response to pediatric mental health challenges.

In December, on the heels of this decisive call to action, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued his own statement declaring an “urgent need to address the youth mental health crisis.” In light of the rapidly growing rate of mental health challenges presenting in children, adolescents, and young adults, a strong future depends on our ability to address, discuss, and positively impact the overall state of pediatric mental health.

By the Numbers: Pediatric Mental Health Challenges on the Rise

Even prior to the pandemic, pediatric mental health challenges have been steadily on the rise for years – with up to 1 in 5 children between the ages of 3 to 17 diagnosed with a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral health disorder. On a whole, these challenges are a leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes. According to the CDC, depression, behavioral health, and learning challenges are the most prevalently diagnosed mental health disorders in children. For the three year period prior to the pandemic, nearly 6 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 were diagnosed with ADHD, 5.8 million with anxiety, 5.5 million with behavioral problems, and approximately 2.7 million with depression.

Recent statistics illustrate the dire need to effect change.

While researchers are still investigating the upward trend, new exposure to social media standards, academic expectations, and high pressure body image expectations may be to blame. The increase is thought to be driven partly by increased technology use, partly by cyberbullying, and partly by a heightened pressure placed on youth to perform academically and athletically.

A Tipping Point: The Pandemic’s Impact on Pediatric Mental Health

As we’ve already written about this year, the pandemic has had an immense impact on America’s youth. Children have had a lot to cope with over the past few years — from deep disruptions in their daily lives and routines, to experiencing profound loneliness during social isolation measures. Others may have witnessed the sudden catastrophic loss of a family member or a loved one. As in-person education resumes, educators are noting ongoing outpourings of grief during school hours – from sobbing in hallways to increased bullying among pre-teens.

Research that compares rates of adolescent depression prior to and throughout the pandemic has noted a spike in depressive symptoms since COVID-19s onset, including increased reports of low mood, poor concentration ability, general lack of interest, and loss of pleasure. From 2018 to 2021, 11% of all pediatric emergencies were behavioral health related, and 24% of all behavioral health incidents were due to suicides, suicide attempts, or self-harm. In the year-over-year data between 2019 and 2020, during the height of the pandemic, emergency department visits for suspected youth suicide attempts spiked 31%.

With more children than ever experiencing mental health issues, awareness, advocacy, and efforts to build healthy habits are essential to support our youth and promote a healthy transition into adulthood.

This Week, Organizations Raise Awareness Through Education + Family Support 

Various healthcare and advocacy organizations mark the official week in their own unique ways. One in particular, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), created National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day in 2005 to help reduce stigma and share the message that a positive state of mental health is critical to a healthy childhood. The organization dedicates its focus to caring for the needs of children with serious mental illness (SMI) – such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder – or severe emotional disturbance (SED) – which may be related to an emotional or behavioral disability or complex trauma. As these classifications both result in functional impacts to quality of life, SAMHSA shares support for those who are struggling, their families and loved ones by distributing resources on evidence-based coping practices, and encouraging those in need to seek help. National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day’s goal is ultimately to help illustrate the ways that youth with mental and/or substance use disorders can grow within their communities, come together, and flourish.

The American Psychological Association (APA) celebrates National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day on May 7th, and showcases the importance that positive mental health has on a child’s healthy development. Every year the organization dedicates the day to a different area of focus. In 2020, the APA sponsored “Text, Talk, Act” to promote the value of mental health conversations between parents or caregivers and their children. The awareness day used text messages to spread information – throughout May 2020, teens could text APA to 89800 to engage in dedicated conversation and activities around building healthy mental health practices. Stay tuned to their dedicated page for an update on this year’s theme and related activities to help raise awareness and share resources.

The AACAP leverages the week’s spotlight to help raise public awareness and reduce stigma associated with acknowledging and addressing mental health challenges. Based on the belief that an informed public is an emboldened public, the organization dedicates the week to share resources for families seeking educational materials on mental illness and ways to seek help for their children. The organization has developed a comprehensive “Facts for Families Guide” that covers the full gamut of topics helpful for parents, from advocating for your children, to “normal or not: when to seek help” and even how to identify a psychiatric emergency.

Stop the Stigma: Share Helpful Resources for Parents + Pediatricians 

There is a noted national shortage of pediatric psychologists, psychiatrists, and school counselors. While the National Association of School Psychologists recommends at least one professional for every 500 students, the national average is 1,211 per licensed professional. Over the next four years, schools are looking to distribute funds from pandemic-era Acts, such as the American Rescue Plan Act. Using these resources for sharing education, building awareness, and contributing to the general public discourse on mental health is an important next step for advancing the cause. This way, as awareness builds, even if a wait is required before professional help is available, you and your child will have resources and skills in place to help cope with challenges or issues as they arise.

Research shows that helping young ones develop healthy social emotional habits early on ensures they are equipped with a toolkit that helps them weather life’s storms. This includes sharing coping mechanisms to deal with change or disappointment, developing the ability to conduct emotionally aware conversations, and teaching habits that build resilience.

Here are some helpful tips for parents, pediatricians, and loved ones:

  • Limit technology useSet daily or weekly limits for technology time to help children pursue personal creative hobbies and build relationships outside of screen time.
  • Discuss the future optimistically. A recent study indicated that in geographic areas where the COVID vaccine was available earlier for all adults, kids were notably more hopeful about the future. Additionally, where adult vaccination rates were highest, there was a definite correlation with improvements in adolescent mental health.
  • Create supportive, open spaces. Try to reduce stress-inducing experiences, including fights with your partner or other loved ones. Set up reasonable expectations for chores. Encourage new hobbies or activities, and share praise for things done well.
  • Promote resilience. Challenges are a natural part of life, so equipping your children with ways to overcome them is critical for long-term well-being. Empathy, building strong relationships and routines, helping others, nurturing a sense of appreciation of self, and growing to accept change, are helpful skills to equip your children with for the long haul.

Here are some helpful resources to learn more about healthy habits, building resilience, and supporting children through mental health challenges:

  • Visit On Our Sleeves, a non-profit dedicated to breaking stigmas, raising awareness about the pediatric mental health crisis, and educating families and advocates about children’s mental health. They provide access to free, evidence-based educational materials, and help connect families with trusted local resources.
  • The AAP has launched Bright Futures, a library and online repository of professionally developed resources for families. Visit the site to learn more about health issues impacting children today, what questions you may want to ask healthcare providers, developmental guides, and other resources.
  • Review Mental Health America’s helpful conversation guidesThere is no one right way to have an open conversation about mental health, but there are definite statements or reactions to avoid. Learn more about ways to facilitate these conversations, and certain triggering words to stay away from.
  • Share stories. For pre-teens and older, hearing stories of similar experiences from celebrities, professionals, artists, athletes, and other youth like them can help them understand they’re not alone. Recommend vetted podcasts like, “Yeah No, I’m Not OK,” a new podcast dedicated to advancing the national conversation about mental health through connection and story sharing.

While National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week comes around only once per year, it serves as an annual reminder to engage in the conversation, learn from the community, and gather resources to spark open conversations and help your kids build healthy habits for life.

If you, your child, or another loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or other thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can reach the Crisis Text Line immediately by texting “START” to 741-741. For any urgent safety concerns, call 911 or go directly to the emergency room.

Darice Warren
dwarren@nssbehavioralhealth.com


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