By: Francesca Varallo Sims, PsyD (Director of Education and Training, Baptist and Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health) – COVID-19 has affected people from all demographics across the Northeast Florida region, the country, and even the world. While the pandemic has certainly been challenging physically, mentally and emotionally for everyone, multiple studies have shown the virus and its effects have disproportionately affected the Black community. This could be attributed, at least in part, to various social determinants of health like economic stability, access to quality health care, and education, as well as environmental and community factors, including structural racism and discrimination.
For Black American youth, these pre-existing systemic health and social inequities were clearly worsened by the pandemic. In addition to virus and race-related stressors, feelings of social isolation, depression, and anxiety, Black youth also experience barriers to accessing quality, culturally competent behavioral health treatment.
This has been well documented, including in an article in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Disparities which surveyed Black kids’ and teens’ perception of COVID-19 and mental health. The respondents indicated an overall fear of contracting COVID-19, as well as concerns with their family’s finances. In fact, cost was a main deterrent to seeking mental health treatment. Teens also expressed dissatisfaction with having less peer interaction.
How can parents help?
Research indicates the continued importance of family and peer support in children’s and teens’ mental wellness during the pandemic. Parents and trusted caregivers play an essential role in fostering an environment in which open communication and socialization is prioritized. To do this, adults must pay attention to the individual thoughts, feelings and voices of the kids and teens in their lives. That begins with normalizing emotional expression in the home by asking children open-ended questions about their feelings.
Don’t know what to say? Trying something simple like, “Things have changed during the pandemic, what has it been like for you?” Listen, support, and validate any feelings or concerns. To keep the lines of communication open, make sure to check in with them regularly.
When familial support isn’t enough, seek out mental health providers in the community who specialize or are experienced in treating minority youth. This type of clinician would promote an open dialogue about race and systemic injustices, as well as address the role of cultural identity and the importance of fostering meaningful relationships for overall psychological well-being. Parents and caregivers who seek mental health help for their children should ask providers about their experience with these specific topics and issues.
What resources are currently available for parents and kids?
Wolfson Children’s Hospital recently launched On Our Sleeves, a national movement for children’s mental health, in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. The concept is simple yet important: kids don’t wear their thoughts on their sleeves, so it can be difficult to tell when they are struggling with their emotions.
This crisis prevention program highlights the importance of starting conversations with kids and teens about children’s mental health, reducing stigma, and sharing behavioral health education. Wolfson Children’s On Our Sleeves provides free tools, resources, and a monthly e-newsletter featuring timely mental health topics and information. These resources address a wide range of topics, including race-related issues and COVID-19-related stress, and encourage open communication, increase awareness of potential signs of emotional distress, and give guidance for coping with stressors.
To get started or learn more about On Our Sleeves, visit wolfsonchildrens.com/onoursleeves.