Saturday, December 2, 2023

Virginia Kids’ Mental Health Still Strained from Pandemic

A 2021 study by the nonprofit Mental Health America found only 60% of youths experiencing depression received any type of mental health treatment. (Adobe Stock)

RICHMOND — With a new school year beginning, Virginia parents are being urged to keep an eye on their children’s mental health.

According to Mental Health America, 79,000 children in Virginia or 13%, have experienced a “severe major depressive episode” in the past year.

Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente, said there are many ways parents can help provide their children the support they will need. She described some of the signs parents should look out for, which might signal a mental-health concern.

“Some of the main things that come up are changes in sleep, changes in appetite, increased social isolation, increased irritability; challenges with patients not wanting to separate from their parents,” Patton-Smith outlined. “Social-emotional attachment issues.”

Other signs to watch for are panic or anxiety symptoms, and kids complaining of headaches or stomachaches. Given the new school year will more closely resemble schooling pre-pandemic, Patton-Smith feels the return to normalcy might help children. She acknowledged returning to a structured environment is not always easy, but thinks the adjustment period should be easier this year compared to last.

Patton-Smith pointed out parents who take an active role in their child’s life can help them maintain good mental health. She advised parents to talk with their children and encourage them to ask for help. Whether the help comes from talking with a mental health provider, a school counselor or school social worker, she feels parents need to be proactive, not reactive.

“As a parent, just be there for your child,” Patton-Smith advised. “Have that emotional support by establishing an open dialogue, making sure that you are modeling positive, balanced behavior. And I think that goes a long way for kids.”

She added helping children to understand and regulate their own emotions is one way parents can be guides for their child’s mental health.

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