Pandemic Takes Mental Toll on Students. Docs Share Coping Tips

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For children and teenagers, school in 2020 consists of countless hours in front of a screen. Friends are nowhere in sight. Competitive team sports are a distant memory.

Life is not easy for young people during a pandemic and experts are worried about the toll this will all take on the mental health of our kids.

"It really feels like the world's weight is on your shoulders, a Heritage High School senior named Holden told NBC7 during a recent group interview. "Those feelings are definitely there and it really takes a toll on your mental health over the long run."

NBC News gathered data to look at what has changed since March, when the virus closed nearly every school in the country. That data shows emergency rooms have seen a 24% increase in mental health-related visits from children ages 5 to 11 compared to last year. The increase among older kids is even higher, at 31%.

"Though I'm not a very extroverted person I can admit that I hate the feeling of being locked up indoors all the time," Holden said. "It does feel awful being stuck inside 24/7, not being able to go out to see friends."

For some teenagers, distance learning has been the main challenge during the pandemic.

"I can't do online school. I have to, like, be in person with my teachers and everything.  I just can't do online," a Hans Christian Middle School eighth-grader named Ruby told NBC 7.

San Diego Unified Physical Education teacher Nasara Gargonnu says he’s worried about the long-term effects on the mental health of his students.

"I'm very concerned because not everybody's able to just pivot," Gargonnu told NBC7. "I've heard situations of suicide, personally, many suicide notes. I've had people reach out to me (to) talk to their kids, so it is very serious."

Gargonnu says he pushes his students to get outside and exercise to help keep their immune system and their mental health strong.

Christine Frey coaches young people facing mental health challenges through her organization called Brain XP. She has put together a set of coping techniques on the organization's website.

As a young teenager, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she wrote about her experiences in a book, "Brain XP: Living with Mental Illness, a Young Teenager's Perspective." 

She says during the pandemic, the two main things she's been hearing from teens she speaks with is anxiety and depression.

"We're so lonely, we're so isolated. We want to see our friends, they mean so much to us," Frey said. "And I think that that really, really has a huge effect on our mental health, in general."

Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw is a licensed psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista's Child and Adolescent Unit.  He says parents are important role models when it comes to mental health.  He encourages parents to keep an open line of communication.

"Just really taking the time, regularly and deliberately to sit down with your child and primarily just listen," Dr. Bradshaw recommends.

He advises parents to seek professional help if they notice abrupt changes in their children, or concerning behaviors that are more persistent.

To learn more about Sharp's mental health services, families can call 1-800-82-SHARP or visit their website

Dr. Kim Norman, a psychiatrist at UCSF Health, recommends that young people do three things during these difficult times.

  1. Focus on what you can control. That includes following the so-called three W's: wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.
  2.  Stay in the moment and don't worry about tomorrow, because it's not here yet.
  3. And finally, try not, to judge yourself.          

Dr. Norman says research shows that young people benefit when parents tell family stories about resilience.  He says kids can relate when they hear about how their parents have gotten through tough times before.

Frey also says parental support can be key when children are facing mental health challenges.

"I think that parents really need to know that their support means a lot more than they think when they say you're not alone we're here for you and means a lot more than they understand," she said.

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