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The pandemic is threatening our children’s ability to cope

March 23, 2022, 11:10 AM UTC
As the pandemic continues, feelings of hopelessness and sadness, suicide attempts, and visits to the ER for mental health challenges have increased among young people.
Sean Gallup—Getty Images

“What does the future hold? Are we as prepared as we need to be for the next stages of life that we’re entering?”

Those are the questions that Francesca Henderson, a high school junior, and her peers are asking as they grapple with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. When lockdowns first started, Francesca was a freshman. Now, she’s about to choose a college, a career path, and legal adulthood.

Over the course of the pandemic, young people like Francesca have faced incredible disruptions to their lives. Suddenly, the ways they learned, connected with their friends, and explored their interests were taken away from them. Any return to the “old normal” now seems a far way off at best.

We can’t turn back time and erase the terrible things our kids have witnessed. However, with urgent intervention from leaders across the public and private sectors, we can secure a better future for this generation of young people.

A crisis in youth mental health

The youth mental health crisis has become more urgent as the pandemic continues. As the U.S. Surgeon General’s 53-page report makes heartbreakingly clear, feelings of hopelessness and sadness, suicide attempts, and visits to the ER for mental health challenges have only increased among our young people.

One of the best protective factors for children’s mental wellbeing is stable structure and routine. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on this area of their lives, at home and at school. When students were heading back to the classroom this fall, data from the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health found that nearly half (48%) of U.S. teens were concerned about experiencing anxiety and 47% about falling behind academically.  

For a moment, there was a glimmer of normalcy. Vaccine distribution was rising amongst younger populations and many teens returned to pre-pandemic activities. As cases surged at the end of 2021, our kids were, yet again, shuttling between in-person and virtual learning.

Parents–and leaders–can help

Our children are going through such a uniquely challenging time that caregivers struggle to offer support. There is so much we can do. Parents can model good coping behaviors and be on the lookout for signs of a deeper mental health problem.

Parents should look out for big changes in behavior, mood, and habits, like school avoidance, losing interest in things they used to enjoy, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and disruptive behavior or aggression. Help your kids create new routines (or revisit old ones) to keep them from feeling disconnected and adrift. Commit the family to supporting this structure.

Spending more time online is an understandable coping mechanism of the pandemic–but it can still take us away from other valuable and healthy activities, like family dinners and exercise.

Additionally, we have seen more corporations taking action to aid in their employees’ mental well-being, especially for younger employees entering the workforce during the pandemic. Some three in four large companies offer at least one type of mental health support for employees, according to data from McKinsey. It would be even better if companies extended this support to their children.

Supporting children’s mental health is an investment in the next generation of our workforce. In order to best support our employee base and future-proof our workforce, mental health advocacy at all ages is imperative.

Here’s how that advocacy can play out:

  • In your own life. Understand how the pandemic has affected your mental health and advocate for yourself within your company’s structure. Model this behavior. Take time for yourself, seek help when you need it, and show those around you that they can do the same.
  • On behalf of those around you. Make it a priority to check in on the mental wellbeing of those around you–no matter their age. Learn how to spot warning signs.
  • As part of your organization. Implement programs and benefits that allow employees to access and prioritize their mental health and the mental health of their families.
  • As part of your giving. Incorporate youth mental health advocacy into your company’s offerings, philanthropy, or social good efforts. Less than two percent of funding goes toward those causes. We need to see leaders coming together to solve these problems.

With action, we can ensure that young people, like Francesca, remain on the path to resiliency as they head to college, and eventually, the workforce.

Joan Steinberg is president of the Morgan Stanley Foundation, and CEO of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health’s Advisory Board.

Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, is the founding president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute.

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