Kids Can’t “Self Care” Their Way Out of This

“Kids are resilient.”

If you’re like me, you’ve come to cringe every time you hear that statement. It now ranks up there with the words and phrases “unprecedented,” “new normal,” and “out of an abundance of caution.” Thanks to COVID, I’m done hearing these phrases, and I’m done allowing everyone to brush off every trauma children have to deal with by flippantly saying, “Kids are resilient.” 

I’m not here to debate the merits of risk mitigation measures and their impacts on children, especially this far into the pandemic. I have my thoughts on those items, and all I will say is I encourage people on both sides of the debates to actually listen to each other and the evidence because neither side is doing their children any favors by ignoring legitimate concerns that don’t conform to their political ideology. What I want to point out is that many kids are not resilient because many adults are not resilient right now. And many kids and adults haven’t been resilient for some time.  

A Brief Mental Health Snapshot

The Kaiser Family Foundation (2021) explains the increase in mental health and substance abuse disorders due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, the resulting economic instability, and compounding health problems. During the pandemic, 4 in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, which is up from 1 in 10 in July 2019.

In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on youth mental health issues which were further exacerbated by the pandemic. Murthy’s advisory explains prior to the pandemic, youth were already experiencing mental health problems which have gotten worse over the past decade. For example, prior to COVID, up to 1 in 5 children between the ages of 3 and 17 experienced mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorders. Suicide attempts among people aged 10-24 increased 57% between 2007 and 2018 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). 

Research by UNC’s Andrea Hussong (2021) shows adolescents’ mental health started to deteriorate early on in the pandemic, and they continue to report increased levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. She adds youth in the U.S. report the biggest impact of the pandemic has been on their mental health.

Becoming Resilient

The skills you need to become resilient are not skills children are born with. Unless someone models this behavior, people aren’t going to develop resiliency as children. As people age and experience life, they can become resilient (O’Connor, 2020). But children are not born with this magical ability to be resilient just because they have no choice other than to adapt to what life throws at them. Survival is not resilience. Unfortunately, developing these skills or maintaining these skills has been difficult or impossible for anyone during the pandemic.

Davis (2018) describes steps to be a more resilient person. Some of these steps include always seeing the silver lining, stopping negative thoughts, emotionally distancing yourself from challenges, and remembering this situation is not permanent. These steps have been tricky during the pandemic when depressing news has been thrown at us constantly and there’s no way to emotionally distance ourselves from a situation that is impacting every aspect of our lives. Doron, Branch-Elliman, and Perkins (2022) specifically point out how children have been treated as “disease vectors” with punitive measures for mask compliance issues impacting nearly every aspect of their school day and how the lack of off-ramps and unified messaging has made people believe school is inherently unsafe. How can they possibly do any of the steps to be resilient described by Davis in these situations, especially when an institution that was supposed to be a safe space is now being seen as unsafe (not that schools haven’t lost some of their feelings of safety since the era of active shooters began, but that’s another topic)? Also, at this point, we know COVID will not ever go away, and public health communications are not doing a good job helping people understand how COVID may be permanent, but the pandemic state of anxiety and extreme mitigation will not be permanent.

The Mayo Clinic (2022) acknowledges the mental health struggles caused by COVID and offers tips to take care of yourself and maintain your mental health, but a number of these tips are simply not feasible due to the country’s response to COVID:

  • “Participate in regular physical activity”: We spent a large chunk of the pandemic encouraged to stay inside away from people, away from ways we (especially kids) get physical activity. 
  • “Limit screen time”: This is hard to do when your life exists on the computer for a full day of work or school followed by homework. 
  • “Keep your regular routine”: Kids have no semblance of a regular routine when they don’t know from one day to the next if school will be virtual or what mitigation measures they will be expected to take. And of course, that means parents have no semblance of a normal routine either if they have to adjust for child care. 
  • “Focus on positive thoughts”: This is difficult to do during a roller coaster of a pandemic and having been told since 2020 that a hug will “kill grandma.”
  • “Make connections”: Again, this is difficult to do when you’re told to isolate and when you might not even have a classroom to interact with. Kindergarteners, preschoolers, and adolescents have also lost necessary socialization time which could negatively impact their ability to make connections in the future.

We Can’t Ignore These Issues

There are many things in society that COVID has made blatantly obvious because it exacerbated these problems that have been festering for decades. Here’s just a small list of issues other than mental health (I wanted to do a post about these things, but they are too overwhelming for me to handle in any blog post):

  • Lack of supplies and funding for hospitals that don’t serve primarily wealthy patients.
  • Healthcare worker burnout and inadequate staffing.
  • Lack of access to hospitals and critical care services or a small number of ICU beds and the healthcare finance models that lead to these issues.
  • Lack of a true, coordinated public health system, let alone any kind of emergency system that can quickly respond to crises.
  • “Unskilled” labor being the frontline workers who are deemed essential to keep our society running but aren’t given adequate insurance, pay, or time off work so they can actually avoid being around others when they’re sick.
  • The digital divide both in terms of internet access and digital literacy.
  • K-12 schools and the social services they offer that children depend on (i.e. meals, support, structure).
  • Poor health literacy and information literacy so people are unable to make informed choices about their health and fall prey to misinformation online and a politicization of public health.
  • 24/7 news coverage that focuses on clicks, shares, likes, and views rather than providing accurate news coverage.
  • Lack of a social safety net for people who suddenly, by no fault of their own, find themselves without jobs or money.
  • Living paycheck to paycheck and not having any “rainy day fund” to cover emergency expenses when work shuts down.
  • A two-party political system with politicians who care more about reelection and themselves than actually taking care of the citizens of this country.

The list goes on and on, and mental health is sadly just one item on this list of major items. As someone who has worked in higher education for over 10 years and who pays close attention to K-12, I am afraid of the full force of the mental health fallout we are about to see over the next generation. I’m afraid of the fallout from politicized health messages, job loss, mitigation efforts with questionable evidence, years of socialization lost, isolation of elderly and what that does to them and their family, inability to have closure when a loved one dies, and the fear as we transition from pandemic to endemic. 

We can’t “self care” our way out of the mental health crisis. We can’t ignore any of these issues anymore no matter how much we try to ignore them under the guise of a “return to normal” or a “new normal.” Survival is not resilience.

Mental Health Resources

If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health or addiction concerns or concerns about a family member, please reach out to your physicians. Also, here are some additional resources.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

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