Dr Robert London

The kids may not be alright, but psychiatry can help


Publish Date: December 14, 2022

When I was growing up, I can remember experiencing “duck and cover” drills at school. If a flash appeared in our peripheral vision, we were told we should not look at it but crawl under our desks. My classmates and I were being taught how to protect ourselves in case of a nuclear attack.

Clearly, had there been such an attack, ducking under our desks would not have saved us. Thankfully, such a conflict never occurred – and hopefully never will. Still, the warning did penetrate our psyches. In those days, families and children in schools were worried, and some were scared.

The situation is quite different today. Our children and grandchildren are being taught to protect themselves not from actions overseas – that never happened – but from what someone living in their community might do that has been occurring in real time. According to my daughter-in-law, her young children are taught during “lockdowns” to hide in their classrooms’ closets. During these drills, some children are directed to line up against a wall that would be out of sight of a shooter, and to stay as still as possible.

Since 2017, the number of intentional shootings in U.S. kindergarten through grade 12 schools increased precipitously (Prev Med. 2022 Dec. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2022.107280). Imagine the psychological impact that the vigilance required to deal with such impending threats must be having on our children, as they learn to fear injury and possible death every day they go to school. I’ve talked with numerous parents about this, including my own adult children, and this is clearly a new dimension of life that is on everyone’s minds. Schools, once bastions of safety, are no longer that safe.

For many years, I’ve written about the need to destigmatize mental illness so that it is treated on a par with physical illness. As we look at the challenges faced by young people, reframing mental illness is more important now than ever. This means finding ways to increase the funding of studies that help us understand young people with mental health issues. It also means encouraging patients to pursue treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists, or mental health counselors who specialize in short-term therapy.

The emphasis here on short-term therapy is not to discourage longer-term care when needed, but clearly short-term care strategies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapies, not only work for problem resolution, they also help in the destigmatization of mental health care – as the circumscribed treatment with a clear beginning, middle, and end is consistent with CBT and consistent with much of medical care for physical disorders.

Furthermore, as we aim to destigmatize mental health care, it’s important to equate it with physical care. For example, taking a day or two from school or work for a sprained ankle, seeing a dentist, or an eye exam, plus a myriad of physical issues is quite acceptable. Why is it not also acceptable for a mental health issue and evaluation, such as for anxiety or PTSD, plus being able to talk about it without stigma? Seeing the “shrink” needs to be removed as a negative but viewed as a very positive move toward care for oneself.

In addition, children and adolescents are battling countless other health challenges that could have implications for mental health professionals, for example:

  • During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, pediatric endocrinologists reportedly saw a surge of referrals for girls experiencing early puberty. Puberty should never be medicalized, but early maturation has been linked to numerous psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (J Pediatr Adolec Gynecol. 2022 Oct. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2022.05.005).
  • A global epidemiologic study of children estimates that nearly 8 million youth lost a parent or caregiver because of a pandemic-related cause between Jan. 1, 2020, and May 1, 2022. An additional 2.5 million children were affected by the loss of secondary caregivers such as grandparents (JAMA Pediatr. 2022 Sept. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.3157).
  • The inpatient and outpatient volume of adolescents and young adults receiving care for eating disorders skyrocketed before and after the pandemic, according to the results of case study series (JAMA Pediatrics. 2022 Nov 7. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4346).
  • Children and adolescents who developed COVID-19 suffered tremendously during the height of the pandemic. A nationwide analysis shows that COVID-19 nearly tripled children’s risks of developing new mental health illnesses, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, trauma, or stress disorder (Psychiatric Services. 2022 Jun 2. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.202100646).

In addition to those challenges, young children are facing an increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. We were told the “flu” would be quite bad this year and to beware of monkeypox. However, very little mention is made of the equally distressing “epidemic” of mental health issues, PTSD, anxiety, and depression as we are still in the midst of the COVID pandemic in the United States with almost 400 deaths a day – a very unacceptable number.

Interestingly, we seem to have abandoned the use of masks as protection against COVID and other respiratory diseases, despite their effectiveness. A study in Boston that looked at children in two school districts that did not lift mask mandates demonstrated that mask wearing does indeed lead to significant reductions in the number of pediatric COVID cases. In addition to societal violence and school shootings – which certainly exacerbate anxiety – the fear of dying or the death of a loved one, tied to COVID, may lead to epidemic proportions of PTSD in children. As an article in WebMD noted, “pediatricians are imploring the federal government to declare a national emergency as cases of pediatric respiratory illnesses continue to soar.”

In light of the acknowledged mental health crisis in children, which appears epidemic, I would hope the psychiatric and psychological associations would publicly sound an alarm so that resources could be brought to bear to address this critical issue. I believe doing so would also aid in destigmatizing mental disorders, and increase education and treatment.

Layered on top of those issues are natural disasters, such as the fallout from Tropical Storm Nicole when it recently caused devastation across western Florida. The mental health trauma caused by recent tropical storms seems all but forgotten – except for those who are still suffering. All of this adds up to a society-wide mental health crisis, which seems far more expansive than monkeypox, for example. Yet monkeypox, which did lead to thousands of cases and approximately 29 deaths in the United States, was declared a national public health emergency.

Additionally, RSV killed 100-500 U.S. children under age 5 each year before the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and currently it appears even worse. Yet despite the seriousness of RSV, it nowhere matches the emotional toll COVID has taken on children globally.

Let’s make it standard practice for children – and of course, adults – to be taught that anxiety is a normal response at times. We should teach that, in some cases, feeling “down” or in despair and even experiencing symptoms of PTSD based on what’s going on personally and within our environment (i.e., COVID, school shootings, etc.) are triggers and responses that can be addressed and often quickly treated by talking with a mental health professional.

Dr. London is a practicing psychiatrist and has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in and writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of “Find Freedom Fast” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). He has no conflicts of interest.