“I think I have pleuritis,” a 10-year-old told me last month. “It hurts when I breathe in deep.”
“Really? What else have you read?” I asked.
“Well, if it’s not pleuritis, it could be anxiety. If it’s not pleuritis or anxiety, this could be bad,” he declared. He’d spent hours Googling his own symptoms, his mom later told me. He also spent hours every day worrying about the coronavirus, about his family’s health, school and his classmates.
Most of my patients don’t recruit Google to diagnose their own anxiety. Most don’t run and hide when the doorbell rings either. For many children, the first signs of anxiety and depression manifest as vague symptoms: a mild headache that won’t go away, outbursts of anger, acting out, an inability to focus in school, etc.
In the midst of a global pandemic with a rising death toll, these vague symptoms, experienced by children without the ability to verbalize or advocate for themselves, can be easily overlooked in the country’s response. But to overlook the mental health of children and teens would have devastating consequences for years to come.
Rising rates of mental health issues
There is no question that all children have been affected by the pandemic in one way or another. But children in communities of color have more frequently sheltered in place while watching adult family members leave the home to earn a living, later to contract the virus.
We currently have no way of predicting the long term effects of the pandemic on children. Covid-19 is an unprecedented natural experiment in and of itself. Some kids may come out the other end with increased resilience. Others may experience the type of long-term trauma that impairs their development and keeps them overly cautious in the future.
But as our society gets reimagined, the well-being of children needs to be a top priority.
And perhaps most importantly, now is the time to bring true financial relief to the many households in this country that are economically affected by this crisis. Until basic shelter and food needs are met, it is unfair to ask parents to prioritize the mental health of their children.
The road ahead is long and full of uncertainty, but the time to plan and invest in the well-being of the country’s children is now.