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The Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Children and Adolescents with Behavioral and Mental Health Challenges

December 04, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact the United States in many ways. Now the third leading cause of death in the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic has reached 8.26 million confirmed cases and more than 220,000 American deaths. As our daily lives were changed abruptly in a blink of an eye, children and adolescents with behavioral and mental health problems have been tremendously impacted since the start of the global pandemic. 

Children and adolescents benefit from a structured and routine life that has yet to return to normal. For children and adolescents with a behavioral and mental health need, adjusting to changes can be extremely difficult. From their social skills to their academic success to treatments that benefit them for the rest of their lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a crisis for our children and adolescents with mental health problems.

Students around the country have been struggling to adjust to going “back to school” via online learning. For students with special needs, the challenges have been even more laborious to adjust. Parental stress, financial crises, unfamiliar educational systems, and lack of accessible treatments are some of the biggest challenges parents of children and adolescents with behavioral and mental health problems have been overcoming since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Parents have turned into teachers while juggling to balance work from home in many cases. As parents of children and adolescents with a mental health problem understand, a simple change in their child’s routine can be a significant offset for the entire day. Parents have learned to pay close attention to their child’s age group. For elementary-age students, parents have noticed a decrease in their attention span and difficulty retaining information. For middle-school students, online learning has increase anxiety, alone time, and lack of in-person classroom relationships. The virtual school has increased depression, crime rates, and decreased motivation to learn for high school age students. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, children and adolescents were encouraged to interact with family, friends, teachers, and neighbors. As the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many children feared not seeing their friends, teachers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. As the Covid-19 pandemic continued to develop, several medical and behavioral health facilities worldwide had to limit their capacity and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. For children and adolescents with behavioral and mental health problems, this meant treatments were paused, and other individualized interventions were no longer available. 

I had the privilege to interview Gail Cormier, the National Family Support Technical Assistance Center (NFSTAC) Project Director, and Lynda Gargan, the Executive Director of the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. Both Cormier and Gargan shared their national perspective on how families who have children with behavioral and mental health problems are coping during the Covid-19 pandemic and how their Centers have organized multiple focus groups to keep up with families identified challenges. Cormier, prior Executive Director for North Carolina Families United, and Gargan reflected on the importance of supporting communities in need during the current health crisis. The use of telehealth, for example, has been a unique way both Cormier and Gargan witnessed mental health providers continue to serve and support families. This form of technology has allowed providers to continue treatment sessions and diagnostic evaluations.

Two of the biggest challenges discussed by both Cormier and Gargan were the use of face masks and students receiving computers but no access to the internet. Although essential to prevent the spread of this virus, face masks may cause children with mental health problems to feel scared or panic. Children with mental health problems can be extra sensitive to how the mask feels on their faces and how they breathe. Cormier and Gargan both stated that people’s challenge to wear face mask becomes a more significant challenge for children with special needs. While laptops have been distributed to many students, families with limited resources do not have accessible internet at home, defeating the purpose. Children with behavioral and mental health problems need more than just laptops at home; they need individualized plans to help them succeed in their academics. 

Although this global pandemic brought numerous challenges to children and adolescents with behavioral and mental health challenges and their families, these families should never feel alone. Families should feel supported and encouraged to continue helping their children during this time of crisis. It takes a community to raise a child, and there is no better time to prove it. The voice of this community must be louder than ever to strengthen the support offered to families and make an even more substantial impact on the children and adolescent mental health system. 

As a student in the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health program at the University of South Florida, I have personally witnessed how far a helping hand goes when a family needs it the most. We must not forget that our most vulnerable communities depend on everyone’s help during these difficult times. 

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About the Author

Zizzette Garcia

Zizzette Garcia is currently attending the University of South Florida, pursuing a Master of Science degree in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health with a concentration in Developmental Disabilities and a certificate in Positive Behavior Supports. Zizzette has a strong passion for helping children and adolescents with behavioral and mental needs. During her internship, Zizzette will directly assist the Children’s Mental Health Network by researching how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted children and adolescents with developmental disabilities and their families. She will be the voice and advocate for the developmental disability community and will focus on ensuring that their needs are being heard.

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