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Back to School KFF Covid-19 Study

By Allison Chase, PhD, CEDS-S

A report recently released from the Kaiser Family Foundation, regarding the impact of Covid-19 on both children and their parents related to mental health functioning, shared concerning statistics indicating a rise in mental health concerns, more specifically an increased onset of mental health symptoms over the past 12 months. These symptoms included nervousness or worry, sleep disruptions, and physiological symptoms. Children's lives have been disrupted both academically and socially since the beginning of Covid, and it is of no surprise that we see negative emotional functioning as a result. This report may not appear all that shocking to many in the field of behavioral health, as we mental health professionals have continued to see increased demand for services and increased acuity in our patients. However, seeing the uptick of reported statistics verifies the current challenges we face while trying to help our patients and their families manage the stressors and resulting negative emotions and the behavioral result of a pandemic that disrupted academics, relationships, and financial stability.

What might this mean for those in the mental health field trying to support these individuals? We need to prepare to see increased distress among both our patients and their support system. Equally important is carefully assessing and gathering the specific challenges and realities that each is enduring. While we have comprehensive data to show the level of impairment, the circumstances and specifics may be unique and individualized depending on several factors, including age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The report indicated that younger families and those of Black and Latino descent were more likely to suffer household disruptions. Understanding the specific stressors and current level of coping among our patients and their families provides the necessary data to help provide support. For that reason, it is essential while working with younger patients that their caregivers are also involved in treatment to provide a comprehensive picture of the circumstances and factors within their environment. Please note that caregivers can refer to anyone supporting the child, as it is not unusual for families to extend past biological parents living in the household. This more comprehensive assessment creates the ability to fully help the increase in mental health struggles and best work with one's strengths and, more specifically, tackle the specifics causing these challenges.

Furthermore, the study reported that children's academia was compromised in addition to mental health, particularly for those engaged in online schooling. One would speculate that the online setting resulted in less focus from the student and less access and support to the required academic materials. As many school topics and academic lesson plans build on each other over the school year and from year to year, the concern will be the residual impact for children as they continue to move forward in their academics. A common concern of many parents is what happens if my child falls behind? Are the schools prepared to support this additional need for learning? The new school year is upon us, and while many students are headed back into the classroom, the inconsistencies of mask requirements and the variability of Covid continues to leave parents feeling concerned and apprehensive.

What happens if academics need to shift to online again? Will our children be further impacted academically? Understandably, these questions are the ones consuming caregivers as they scramble to buy back to school supplies and start the daily routine of waking early and getting to the school bus on time. It is, unfortunately, a question that none of us have a crystal ball to answer. Therefore, it will be important to hold the space and discussion for parents of our patients and caregivers within our communities to have concern and anxiety. We know anxiety is best managed when there is an opportunity to discuss and better understand the root of the emotions and use strategies to manage the physiological process of anxiety. Anxiety and emotional responses occur in a part of our brain that can create a quick and intense physiological response. It is for that reason that strategies like breathing exercises and mindfulness are considered so effective. Furthermore, these strategies can soothe an overly activated nervous system. In instances when our bodies are calm, they offer the ability for us to recognize our thoughts, actions and make realistic assessments and plans related to the situation. While we can't possibly strategize for every scenario, and that is not necessarily recommended, when our brains can get out of "flight or fight" mode, there is more space to create helpful solutions.

Another powerful finding in the current Kaiser Family Foundation report is the overall impact and disruptions that Covid's effects had on many households. As the study findings indicated, these significant disruptions occurred in routine and structure, impacting academics and household finances. Many parents reported suffering a job disruption during the pandemic, primarily due to caring for the needs of their children. The compounding effect of the strains of financial resources and the disruption of regular routines and schedules is likely to increase stress and negative emotions. These findings help to recognize further the importance of assessing the patients' environment and specific stressors. Using a family-based approach in treating the needs of children that have been impacted provides a more effective and comprehensive treatment strategy to address these challenges. It is important to note that while the term is "family-based," family refers to any individuals taking an active and responsible role in caring for the children, a term we refer to as caregiver. Working with the caregivers to empower themselves with skills to support children's emotional functioning allows for increased capacity to manage those mental health symptoms within the household. In turn, the caregiver can learn skills to manage their own increase in mental health symptoms and negative emotions that have been reported related to the impact of the Covid pandemic over the past year and a half.

Mental health symptoms can vary in severity. Please be aware that if the functioning of either the child or the caregiver is exhibiting unhealthy behaviors, creating impairment disruptive to one's daily life, it is important to explore whether the need for a higher level of care would be an appropriate fit.

Written by

Allison Chase, PhD, CEDS-S

Dr. Allison Chase is a clinical psychologist and Regional Clinical Director for ERC Pathlight in the Texas Region. She has been working in the field of eating disorder treatment for over ...