Once upon a time, children stood at school bus stops without masks covering their faces or concerns about catching COVID-19. No plastic shields enclosed spaced out school desks. Taking a class by Zoom was an exception, not the norm. But in 2020, the world seemed to morph into a twilight zone. During Mental Health Awareness Month, it is a prime time to reflect on how the pandemic is still forcing youth to adjust to a strange, new world.
On top of it all, enduring long stretches of isolation through life’s ups and downs is leaving countless adults feeling depressed or stressed out. Keeping this in mind, a percentage of adolescents have undoubtedly been thrown into a position of growing up burdened by adult concerns.
According to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, “In 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” Over a quarter (29%) of them “reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.”
Youth need mental health support now more than ever. Y. Mimi Ryans is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW-C) who owns Columbia-based Lighthouse Center for Therapy & Play. She provides mental health counseling for children, adolescents, adults, and families. Additionally, Ryans offers reunification therapy and parent coordination services for high conflict relationships, through her busy practice where ten clinicians work
Ryans—who has been a clinician since 2008— conducts therapy 100% virtually now. Clinicians who serve clients with her do, too. Through her work, Ryans has observed how the pandemic impacted mental health in young people. She reminded that youth’s mental health needs are critical. She explained that the pandemic proved that quality mental health services could be provided to clients without having to appear in-person. Parents can now turn on the computer, leave their child in therapy, then continue to work or tend to household chores that would previously need to be delayed until returning home.
“I have seen the impact of the pandemic on children and the adults in their families. The level of anxiety has heightened, and we were seeing increased levels of anxiety prior to the pandemic,” Ryans told The Baltimore Times. “We have seen levels of depression increase as the children have been forced to stay inside, in their homes, and don’t get to socialize with friends.”
Signs that children need mental health help may alert parents and caretakers to recognize when it is time to seek professional assistance. Ryans noted that “significant decrease in interest in things that they once enjoyed; a hyper-focus on things that they are not able to control or change; and inability to regulate themselves and their behaviors” are among indicators. All threats of harm, whether to themselves or others,” should also be taken seriously by seeking professional support.
Securing immediate help can be challenging. Increased mental health needs have become another newly discovered reality, due to a clinician shortage. For example, Ryans’ therapy waitlist grew from 90 days to nearly six months, before an intake could be completed. Consequently, Lighthouse Center for Therapy & Play is currently not accepting new clients.
“I would recommend that people reach out to their insurance companies for referrals and get on as many waitlists as possible,” Ryans said, offering advice to address this possible scenario.
Practicing grounding techniques and learning to breathe and talk through their feelings and challenges, are additional ways Ryans said that parents and guardians can consider taking practical steps to support youth. Decreasing screen time and social media access are additional strategies she mentioned.
Screen time limits are essential, and yet with the increase of online school, medical and mental health services being offered through screens, it is quite challenging to regulate and limit screen time.
If the time is spent in increments of 30-60 minutes, for no more than three to four hours a day, depending on the age of the child, then it is a little less harmful,” Ryans said. “Social media is harmful in that it is not necessarily real, and when something tragic happens, it plays over and over which can desensitize children and adolescents and creates less empathy.”
The mental health expert also pointed out the importance of remembering to exercise compassion. Understanding that this pandemic is new territory for everyone requires teachers and parents to breathe and practice self-care to enable them to be in the position of taking care of the children.
Please visit www.lighthouseplaytherapy.com to learn more about Ryans.