What About the Children, How Are They?

What about the children, how are they? My answer today, would be “in crisis.” Their normal reaction to this abnormal world is increased anxiety and depression. Young children don’t understand what is happening, can’t comprehend a worldwide virus, can’t understand the stress and exhaustion their parents are experiencing. They don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings. Older children grieve what is lost – celebrations, hanging out with friends, sports, music and more. And they do have the vocabulary to express their feelings. Most are struggling – along with adults – during this pandemic.

And for children who already live with a mental illness, the needs are exponentially greater, and our children’s mental health system is failing them. I’m not blaming the mental health providers. I have heard heroic and courageous stories of them providing treatment and support in-person or paying for extra minutes on a phone or supplying a family with a tablet so that children could access treatment. Most mental health providers have not benefited from COVID-19 dollars and are struggling to stay open and meet the increasing needs. Front line community mental health workers do not even qualify for workers compensation if they come down with the coronavirus. Despite their best efforts, our children’s mental health system simply is not expansive or robust enough to meet our children’s needs right now.

The stories we are hearing will break your heart. Children under 10 stuck in emergency rooms for days, even weeks. Parents who can’t find residential treatment – the wait time can be three months – are told by the county to drop them off at the ER and let child protection step in. Families struggling with trying to have their child engaged in therapy via telehealth. Teens struggling to find privacy to participate in therapy via telehealth. The day treatment programs that are open – well transportation can be a barrier. Finding a new therapist or a psychiatrist during a pandemic is nearly impossible. These children, the ones with serious mental illnesses who have co-occurring conditions, are not receiving the appropriate level of care and treatment. We are failing them.

The solutions are not simple. It’s about increasing rates to pay for educated and trained staff to address complex needs. It’s about making sure that foster care parents and providers are given extra resources, so children don’t face multiple placements, which only increases their inability to form attachments. It’s about ensuring the school-linked mental health providers are in every school and that school support personnel are there as well. It’s about making sure private health insurance pays for the full array of mental health services. It’s about increasing our workforce and making sure it’s culturally diverse. And the list can go on and on – including addressing housing and food instability and structural racism.

On this day, my heart is heavy. The mental health of our children isn’t a priority – in terms of attention and funding – and it needs to be. What will you do to help these children? What steps will you take to help build our children’s mental health system? We need everyone’s help to create the needed changes.