‘Our mental health system is really overwhelmed.’ As young people struggle to adapt to pandemic, experts say they’re concerned

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — For the past 14 months, children across Western New York have had to turn their homes into schools and their computers into classrooms.

“It’s been extremely difficult,” said Amy Leach, a mother of students in the Clarence Central School District. “These kids need social interaction.”

Although COVID-19 poses a lesser risk to young people when it comes to their physical health, the pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health. According to the CDC, there has been a surge in mental health-related emergency room visits since April 2020.

“In the time I was working at the ECMC in-patient unit, it was really striking – first of all – how many kids were there,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist Rebecca Schaeffer. “We had at least 50 percent more than usual kids on the unit than basically the whole entire year.”

Schaeffer said many of the patients she’s worked with throughout the past year were those she normally wouldn’t treat.

“For instance, kids who were really good athletes – athletes on their team that thrive in the community, but maybe at home things weren’t as great,” she said. “Those kids got really depressed. They became suicidal, some of them made attempts and it was so different from some of the other things we’ve been seeing more regularly.”

Parents we spoke with say they have seen a change in their children, especially since schools shut down in-person learning.

Joanna Marble has a five and seven-year-old in the Lockport City School District. She said this year has been tough, and she can see a big difference in her son and daughter’s moods when they’re kept at home versus when they can be in school.

“I don’t think we realize how much impact it does have on little ones because we think they’re small and, for whatever reason, we don’t think they have as much of an opinion on something. But it has quite an impact on them,” Marble said.

Hamburg Central School District Superintendent Michael Cornell said this can be an especially difficult time for children as their brains are still developing.

“The brain develops and rewires four times in a person’s life and three of them are during school-age years,” Cornell said.

Which is why all Hamburg district employees – from teachers, to cafeteria workers, to bus drivers – have been trained to recognize mental health issues. But this became difficult not having the students in school.

“Students will share with us things that are happening in their life. They’ll share with us how they feel about things,” Cornell said. “If they’re not with us enough, they won’t form that bond that allows them to let that guard down and talk with us about what’s happening.”

The other issue: as we’re seeing more students face mental health struggles, there have been fewer therapists who can help.

“Our mental health system is really overwhelmed,” Schaeffer said.

And this is extending to school districts, too.

“We’re lucky enough in Clarence to have a family support center, and I’ve called them on multiple occasions,” Leach said. “They say therapists – adult and child therapists – are booked.”

Experts say one of their biggest concerns is if we don’t address these issues now, mental health struggles won’t end when the pandemic does.

“We’re all very concerned,” Cornell said. “That’s what many of us believe is the next wave of the pandemic – undiagnosed, untreated and self-medicated mental illness among our young people.”

Which is why Schaeffer said help starts in the home.

“The real important message is for parents to slow down, to try and take a little bit of time with themselves,” she said. “Don’t try and solve the problems for your kids, just try and get them to talk about what’s going on.”

If your child is struggling during this pandemic and you don’t know where to turn, the CDC has a COVID-19 parental resources kit right on their website. It’s separated by age group with different tips and solutions for better emotional wellbeing.

Marlee Tuskes is a reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2019. See more of her work here.

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