Written by Guest Blogger Cindy Simpson
Deputy Director of Children and Family Services for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service; Consultant
2020 was a difficult year to say the least with the pandemic, racial injustice, the increase of violence and many of our children not being able to attend school in person. Though our children and youth have been able to spend more time with their parents or primary caregivers, many are grieving the loss of peer interaction, social connection, and time spent in person with other vital, caring adults in their lives, such as extended family, educators, therapists, neighbors, and other community members. It was a year of grief and loss of family members as well as a life-style change, being with friends, being on the playground, dating, prom, and graduation. A year of trauma.
So, given all we experienced in 2020, what should be the priorities to address in 2021? Besides COVID-19 vaccinations, immediate needs in racial inequities, housing stability, education, supporting the children at our borders, and the accompanying trauma and mental health impacts on our children and youth should be first on the list. Though many of the issues are sadly not new, more is being learned daily about the toll of the pandemic and racial injustice events on the mental health of everyone; we must ensure children, youth, and young adults are a priority for supports. Depression, anxiety, and suicide among these ages groups has increased over 25% in the past year, while domestic violence and gun violence has increased 31% in the past year. And it stands to reason that both gun violence and domestic violence has a traumatic impact on those who witness, live with, or have been victimized by either.
Although my own organization will focus on the mental health needs of children, youth, young adults, and families in 2021, we know we must broaden our reach. We are doing so by continuing our work with Cure Violence, which addresses community violence and through serving as the child welfare expert at our southern borders for The Office of Refugee Resettlement. I recently wrapped up a four-day visit at the Texas border, advising on best practices in supports of unaccompanied children and youth. More work is needed, and we are committed to offering this support.
Of course, mental health providers cannot do this work alone. Addressing the mental health needs of our children is the responsibility of all community members. Children and youth learn from their parents, caregivers, family members, educators, coaches, doctors, and more – the adults they are taught to respect and rely on. In these roles, we all impact how children and youth think about and care for their own mental health and how they treat others who have mental health challenges. It takes all of us and together, we can fully bring the conversation into the light.
When you ask what comes to mind for physical health, people often answer, “Exercise, good nutrition, having a primary care physician and getting plenty of rest.” But what we fail to mention is the impact mental health has on our overall well-being and the toll it can take on our physical health when we are struggling. If we really want to change the outcomes for children as they grow into adulthood, our perception of mental health and openly caring for it –like we do our physical health – must begin in childhood. It’s time for the stigma to fall away.
As we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month in May, my hope is that we keep in mind the many challenges we now face as we see our way to a post-COVID reality. And that mental health discussions are something we should not shy away from but embrace and support with resources and openness to keeping the conversation going. And what can we each personally do? Three things to recognize and champion:
- Caring for our mental health is a vital part of living a healthy, fulfilling life.
- It is not just ok, but it is important, to ask for help.
- Acceptance, support, and respect for others who have mental health challenges in their lives and communities is not only a good thing to model for our children, but vital to those in need.