Mental Health Resources For Kids & Teens Who Are Struggling
This has not been an easy time for children, so experts are sharing how to help your kids cope.
Is there hope 2021 will be a better year than 2020? Of course. However, the clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve didn’t change the fact that COVID-19 is on the rise again in the U.S. As many states re-enter quarantine, parents should know about mental health resources for kids so they can offer support if schools shut down and social events are cancelled yet again.
WebMD explained that, since the start of the pandemic, hospitals across the U.S. have seen a major spike in mental health emergencies in kids of all ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that between March and October of 2020, mental health-related ER visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11, and 31% among teens ages 12 to 17, compared to 2019’s stats.
“We are up 300% in pediatric behavioral health emergency admissions,” says Terrie Andrews, PhD, clinical psychologist and system administrator for Baptist Behavioral Health and Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health, in an interview with Romper. “Kids, especially teens, usually do better in structure and routine. Because their world was turned upside down, having to acclimate has been tough on them, their families, their school, and their peer support system. We’re seeing more intentional overdoses and, overall, kids with lots of anxiety and depression. We’ve also seen an uptick in eating disorders, which we’ve never seen before, but that could relate back to the lack of structure and the anxiety of not knowing what’s happening next.”
"I'm seeing significantly more pediatric depression and also increased rates of anxiety, including panic attacks, social anxiety, agoraphobia, and OCD symptoms," says Stephanie Chapman, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Texas Children’s Health Plan The Center for Children and Women, in an interview with Romper. "Many kids are also presenting with grief as caregivers or grandparents have passed away due to COVID. The social isolation and reduction of healthy routines, such as going to school so many children have experienced, have really affected kids at home."
Whether your child is just feeling a little off or is seriously struggling, it’s important for parents to watch for symptoms of declining mental health in their children. The National Institute of Mental Health has a full list of symptoms parents should consider red flags, depending on your child’s age. For younger children, these include having headaches or stomachaches with no known cause, throwing tantrums more often than usual, and more. In older kids and teens, signs of poor mental health can include sleeping too much or too little, suicidal thoughts, and engaging in risky behavior, to name a few.
So, if your grade schooler is feeling down or your teenager has started making concerning comments, what should you do? Start by talking to them about what’s going on, and take it from there.
Talking To Your Child About Their Mental Health
Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, tells Romper in an interview that, when it comes to a mental health crisis, "parent skills are key to prevention. Find time to talk with your kids each day and check in on their mental health. Model emotion regulation — labeling the emotion you are feeling — and coping skills, outlining what you do to calm yourself down when upset. In addition, discuss times when you as a parent feel stress or anxiety openly, to make it a safe environment for your child."
The Village Network, a mental health nonprofit organization in Ohio, shares guidance for parents on how to bring up their child’s mental health in conversation. For example, with younger children, they suggest that using a book or emojis as examples can help them describe how they feel if they don’t know the right words for such big emotions. After you learn more about how they’re feeling, you can decide whether you need to make an appointment with their pediatrician or ask for a referral to a specialist.
The CDC’s Age-Specific Mental Health Guides
If your child is anxious, depressed, or just some kind of unwell as a result of the pandemic, these CDC guides on how to talk to your child about COVID-19 are super helpful. They highlight what about the pandemic may be stressing them out, like missing out on major life events or the change in routine. The guides also include tips for parents to start conversations about COVID (half the battle with teens, right?), help support kids, and create a mentally healthy environment at home.
NAMI’s Helpline, Text Line, & Local Support Groups
“The bottom line is, as a parent, I don’t mind looking at resources, but at the end of the day I want to talk to someone,” Andrews says. “The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a 1-800 helpline and a text line.”
You or your teen can text NAMI at 741-741, which will connect you with a trained crisis counselor for free, 24/7 crisis support. To speak with someone over the phone, call 800-950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also search to see if there is a local NAMI support group near you.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Or 911)
Of course, if you think your child or teenager is having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to get help right away. In a life-threatening emergency, always call 911 immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 for anyone thinking about suicide, in need of emotional support, or worried about a loved one. You can call 1-800-273-8255 (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish) or chat with someone online.
Ask Your Child’s School For Resources
Andrews points out that, in her county, a mental health crisis text line is printed on the back of every student’s ID card. Check in with your child’s guidance counselor or school administrators for their help, and ask for any county or state resources you may be able to use going forward, too.
"The school system can also connect kids to counselors either employed within or closely connected to the school," Chapman says. "Schools can also implement accommodations for kids with anxiety or depression — like, if a child has school phobia, the school can provide a graduated back-to-school plan that can help the youth manage stress returning. If a child has depression, the school can provide work modifications and instructional supports to help youth be successful and not get overwhelmed."
Expert-Approved Mobile Apps
While an app is no replacement for medical help if that’s what your kiddo needs, for some, having these tools available in a matter of minutes is super helpful. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America keeps a running list of apps approved by their experts, so it’s a great resource if you’re looking for trustworthy tools to download.
The list includes meditation and mindfulness apps, like Headspace, as well as symptom tracking apps, which can help your child determine how often their symptoms happen and what might be causing them. Trackers also help keep a record to share with their psychologist later on should they need one.
Phone Your Pediatrician
If you're not sure where to begin the search for mental health care, Chapman recommends starting with the doctor who knows your child best: their pediatrician.
"Your pediatrician is a great starting point for care, and can help get your child to the right care provider faster," she says.
Pediatricians will have a network of psychologists and psychiatrists they can refer you to, and their referral may help you secure an appointment faster. They'll also be aware of any local organizations offering counseling.
Psychology Today’s Therapist Finder
Finding a licensed therapist, counselor, or psychologist for your child may sound like it’s out of your price range, especially if COVID-19 has impacted your income or health insurance. Psychology Today allows you to search specifically for sliding scale providers, meaning they base their appointment price on your income. Just enter your zip code and click the Price filter, and select Sliding Scale. If you have insurance, you can also filter out providers who don’t take it and choose from those who do.
Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) also offers a free psychiatrist finder on their website if you feel your kiddo would benefit from seeing one. Or, it can come in handy if your child is seeing a therapist or other mental health expert who wants to refer them to a psychiatrist, and you want to gather some extra info first. The AACAP website also has lots of expert guides on different disorders and symptoms, which may help you identify and understand what your child is going through right now.
Call Your Local Children’s Hospital
If your child is showing signs of poor mental health and you don’t know where to begin finding help, Google your nearest children’s hospital. Check their website for a behavioral health department or helpline. Some hospitals have 24/7 hotlines to answer parents’ and teens’ questions for free, and those who don’t can at least guide you to the right type of provider (like a psychologist versus a psychiatrist).
“We launched a 24/7 Kids & Teens Mental Health Helpline so parents and teens can call it and get resources, any help they may need, and if kids are showing symptoms of being in crisis, our counselors can ask questions to determine if the child needs to come to the ER or if they should be seen on an outpatient basis,” says Andrews.
Make Home Feel Like A Haven
Being stuck at home is probably to blame for your child’s stress or sadness, so it’s important parents know how to make the best of sheltering in place. The AACAP has a tip sheet online with science-backed steps to making quarantine a little more bearable for kids and teens. They all focus on helping them find social connection and a sense of control.
“Make sure parents aren’t too hard on kids right now,” Andrews says. “This is such an unusual world we’re in right now, and what you would hold your kids accountable for may not be the same now as it was before the pandemic, like failing grades.”
Katzenstein wants parents to remember that, while the pandemic has caused an uptick in mental health concerns for kids, there was already a mental health crisis for kids in the U.S. And it's up to moms, dads, and other family members to help.
"We had a mental health epidemic with one in five children and adolescents experiencing a mental health concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, and we must continue to focus on awareness and prevention to avoid additional mental health concerns in our children and adolescents."
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.
Stephanie Chapman, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Texas Children’s Health Plan The Center for Children and Women
Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital