My former student left her job to care for two young children, and now that they're adolescents, I asked if she was going to resume her career. "No," she replied as tears welled in her eyes. "My children are a mess."
Another former student sought mental health counseling for his 8-year-old son, and he had to contact 35 therapists before finding one with an opening. A third parent was worried about her kindergartner, who was overly anxious about returning to school. The waiting list to see a counselor, she discovered, was six months.
And then there is Peter (not his real name), who got a terrifying call from the father of his teenage daughter's friend. Peter's child was at their house and had apparently ingested something dangerous. She was unresponsive. Come quickly, the father said.
Peter, who was 200 miles away, called his wife. She summoned an ambulance and rushed the child to a nearby hospital, where they spent the night in the emergency room getting her stabilized. The parents had been trying desperately to get their daughter into a residential treatment facility, but beds were scarce. As he talked, Peter wept in fear and frustration.
These stories reflect a brutal truth. Many of our children are in trouble. So are their parents. Help is hard -- often impossible -- to find. And the crisis started long before the pandemic descended in March 2020.
"Mental health disorders are surging among adolescents," reported The New York Times. "In 2019, 13% of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, a 60% increase from 2007. Suicide rates, stable from 2000 to 2007, leaped nearly 60% by 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
The pandemic has made the problem much worse. As Judith Warner wrote in the Washington Post, the isolation and anxiety caused by COVID-19 has ignited "vastly higher levels of both adult and kid distress ... (that) essentially poured gasoline on long-simmering pain, acting less as a cause than an accelerant of the children's mental health crisis."
Experts are struggling to understand both sides of this crisis: both the "long-simmering pain" and the recent "accelerant." Mental and emotional maladies, they've concluded, have largely replaced the more traditional traumas associated with teenagers.
"Young people are more educated; less likely to get pregnant, use drugs; less likely to die of accident or injury," Candice Odgers, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine said in the Times. "By many markers, kids are doing fantastic and thriving. But there are these really important trends in anxiety, depression and suicide that stop us in our tracks. We need to figure it out. Because it's life or death for these kids."
The pandemic aggravated those trends in many ways. Adolescents were isolated from their friends, their tribe, just when they needed to start separating from their parents and developing independent identities. Zoom classes were a poor substitute for in-person learning, and many fell behind in their schoolwork. COVID-19 caused families to lose jobs, income, security -- and in many cases, loved ones.
And many experts now believe that public policy responses focused too heavily on the purely medical issues while downplaying the cost in mental well-being. Warner described those mistakes as "the child-sacrificing outcome of too-rigid social distancing, too-lengthy school closures and too much mask-wearing."
"The pandemic's disruptions have led to lost learning, social isolation and widespread mental health problems for children," wrote David Leonhardt in the Times. "Many American children are in crisis -- as a result of pandemic restrictions rather than the virus itself."
Just when they were needed the most, treatment options declined. Labor shortages and social distancing restrictions limited the number of beds available in some facilities. Flawed federal reimbursement formulas under Medicaid caused other institutions to close entirely. Private insurance plans often cover very limited mental health services, so some therapists stopped seeing patients who couldn't afford expensive treatments.
"Demand went up, supply went down," Lissette Burton, the chief policy analyst for a nonprofit advocacy group, told the Times. "Now we're in full-blown crisis."
There is one benefit to all this pain, however. That crisis, which has been building quietly for years, now commands public attention. One small example: President Biden held a highly publicized White House meeting with pop star Selena Gomez, who talked openly about her own mental health battles. "I'm not perfect, I'm human. I have things that I walk through," she said. "I don't have it all put together, I have had to work through this."
So do we all.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]