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Experts Warn of COVID-19 Related Mental Health Risks in Children

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year but, for many, the holidays can be a difficult season when feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, loss and grief are at an all-time high—and that’s in a normal year. But 2020 has been anything but normal.

The past nine months have been marked by upheaval, uncertainty, isolation and change with the youngest among us feeling the weight of it all, and doctors at Cook Children’s Medical Center are sounding the alarm.

“I’ve been employed as a psychologist at Cook Children’s going on 26 plus years and never in my time have I seen such an intense number of patients with severe anxiety and depression,” said Lisa Elliott, PhD, manager of the behavioral health clinic at Cook Children’s. “It’s not uncommon for us to have high acuity patients periodically, but that’s become the norm for weeks and weeks where 70 to 80 percent of our total number of visits for anxiety and depression are severe.”

Dr. Elliott attributes the uptick, in large part, to fallout from COVID-19.

A June 2020 survey of parents published in the medical journal “Pediatrics” revealed that, since the start of the pandemic, more than 1 in 4 parents reported a decline in their own mental health, and 1 in 7 reported worsening behavioral health in their children. Both a decline in parental mental health and child behavioral health were reported by 1 in 10 families, according to the study “Well-being of Parents and Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A National Survey.”

Cook Children’s mental health experts say screen time, social media, academic performance pressures and lack of sleep all stress a child’s mental and behavioral health. All of those stressors have been exacerbated this year by pandemic-induced factors such as school closings, virtual learning, social distancing and isolation, according to Kathleen Powderly, M.D., a pediatrician on the medical staff at Cook Children’s. If ignored, these pressures can be a breeding ground for anxiety and depression.

And mental health experts are bracing for what is yet to come during the holidays as it’s not uncommon to see an uptick in depression and anxiety in children this time of year, particularly when there has been a significant family change, like in the case of divorce or loss of a loved one, according to Dr. Elliott.

So what is a parent to do? How do we help our children process these pressures to protect their mental and emotional well-being?

“We have to instill hope and stay calm and reasonable about it and, at the same time, not show fear.” Dr. Elliott said. “This is critical because we are going to set the tempo for our children. We will be what they follow. So it’s critical that we are calm and follow the safety guidelines, but tell our children this is not the way it’s going to be forever.”

And what better time than the holidays to model, teach and inspire hope?

Generosity Breeds Health and Hope

As stressful as the holiday season in tandem with a pandemic can be, it also presents a unique opportunity to teach children a concept that studies show actually improves mental health. It’s long been known that generosity and giving incite the same increase in one’s happy hormones as exercising. Giving makes you feel good—emotionally and mentally.

“Research shows that in addition to eating healthy and getting quality sleep, there are three things we can do to help keep depression at bay,” Dr. Elliott said. “One of them is exercising and another is socializing because they both increase endorphins. But the one that has the most long-lasting impact is philanthropy work. Doing things for others.”

A 2018 study published in the journal “Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine” showed a correlation between giving and increased activity in parts of the brain associated with altruism, reward and parental care and behavior. It further demonstrated that acts of generosity toward a targeted, or known, individual in need resulted in reduced activity in the amygdala—a positive given the amygdala is an emotion processing brain structure that signals the fight-or-flight mode when under stress. Increased activity in the amygdala is often seen in individuals with anxiety.

In addition to the chemical reactions philanthropy produces in the brain, doing good for others can help reframe one’s focus. Seeing the pain, suffering and circumstances of others gives perspective on one’s own struggles.

“Volunteer work helps create compassion because it draws concern away from ourselves,” Dr. Elliott said. “That’s why doing for others is so valuable for children. It teaches them compassion and optimism, and helps them develop gratitude.”

It also promotes the concepts of empathy and resilience, which are important building blocks for emotional and mental strength and valuable coping skills that help children deal with other challenges that come their way, according to Dr. Elliott.

This year, the need for generosity and service to others is especially great, given the economic impact of the pandemic. COVID-19 safety guidelines may require outside-of-the-box thinking to safely, yet personally, meet a need, but don’t let that stop you. It’s a great opportunity to get creative with your child.

With the help of Cook Children’s certified child life specialist Lauren Lasrich, MS, CCLS, we’ve compiled a list of ideas to help you and your family get started.

  • Pack a grocery bag full of items and ingredients needed for Thanksgiving dinner for a neighbor in need. Let your child help create the menu and shop for the items together, either online or in the store. Deliver the groceries to their doorstep with a homemade card created by your family/child.
  • Gather the family to rake leaves and clean up the lawn of an elderly or disabled individual. You’ll help a friend and get some sunshine and exercise for yourself and your family at the same time. Sunshine and physical activity are mood boosters!
  • Adopt a family in need for the holidays. Check with your child’s school to see if they collect Christmas gifts for students in need and offer to purchase something on the student’s/family’s wish list. Get your child involved in the shopping process, be it online or in store.
  • Together with your child, research a local organization or charity that promotes a cause you connect with and find out how you can help them meet the needs of those they serve. Create a family donation jar and save change to donate to the charity.
  • Organize a neighborhood food drive and collect non-perishable food items from your neighborhood to donate to a local food pantry. Let your child decorate a donation box and put it on your porch so that your neighbors can safely deliver their donations.
  • The end of the year is a great time to reduce and reuse! Go through your house and collect gently used household and clothing items you no longer need/use to donate to a local charity.
  • Write letters/draw pictures to deployed military members or health care workers. For information on how to do this, or other ideas for supporting our troops, check out How Can I Support the Troops? 5 Ways You Can Help Deployed Soldiers at
  • Do a drive-thru Christmas caroling tour in your neighborhood. Let your neighbors know ahead of time when you plan to be out caroling so they can step outside and enjoy the show. Decorate your car ahead of time as a festive and fun family activity.
  • Make toiletry kits and donate them to a local homeless shelter.

Not only will these activities help others, but they’ll give your child a project to look forward to.

“I tell people, especially during the pandemic, you have to have one thing to look forward to,” Dr. Powderly said. “It may not be the same thing that you enjoy previously, but you have to have something to look forward to because it gives you hope, and that’s what we all kind of need a little bit more of right now is hope.”

What to Watch For

Knowing the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression can help you help your child before things get severe. For children, look for three or more of these symptoms, according to Dr. Elliott:

  • Excessive worry for more time than typical. The difference between normal worry and anxiety disorder is the severity.
  • Difficulty controlling worry.
  • Easily fatigued.
  • Restlessness and difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Sudden change in grades and school performance.
  • Disinterest in a previously loved activity.

If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms and you are concerned about their mental or behavioral health, Cook Children’s is here to help. To access any of the hospital’s behavioral health services, call 682-885-3917. For emergencies, call 911.

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