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'There are signs': Children's National doctors on what to know about kids & mental health

A frustrated child sits on a couchh. (Courtesy: KOKH)
A frustrated child sits on a couchh. (Courtesy: KOKH)
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Mental health experts at Children’s National Hospital and around the country, agree we’re in a mental health crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-pandemic mental and behavioral health problems and created new ones.

For example, prior to the pandemic, Children’s National Hospital had about 80 telehealth calls a month. Now, that number has skyrocketed to 2,000 a month, many of them mental health-related.

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7News Anchor Adrianna Hopkins spoke with Dr. Lilia Mucka Andrew, a psychologist with Children’s National Hospital, who has seen her caseload increase exponentially.

“Is there an age range that surprises you? Are you seeing younger children and families with younger kids coming to you more often?” Adrianna asked Dr. Andrew.

“I do think we’ve seen an increase in some of the younger children– 5, 6, 7–year-olds. So those in kindergarten and 1st grade. As you can imagine that’s a difficult age for parents to have to manage virtual school, etc. So lots of parents looking for support,” she said.

Dr. Andrew says many times parents underestimate how young kids begin to experience stressors in life.

“There’s the classic: 'Oh, you’re a kid, you can handle it, you can have fun. Kids are resilient. But that doesn’t change that this is hard and stressful. And they have emotional experiences from the beginning. And we forget that. We minimize it by saying ‘you got this’ and it’s about stepping back and recognizing that it’s ok for them to be sad and figure out how to move forward.”

And people should remember that kids are sponges – if parents are stressed, kids take notice. And they may take on their stress in addition to their own. But she sees that as a learning experience.

Caretakers and parents are their models. Seeing families undergoing stress being frustrated, can actually be really helpful in terms of finding an opportunity for learning. I think that’s actually a really nice place for families to recognize it’s not a bad thing. Talk about it. Use it as a tool to help kids learn and grow.

Dr. Andrew says kids are more frustrated now, have a lower tolerance and may start snapping back at parents. Parents may notice their kids are more anxious – especially regarding COVID-19 and whether they’ll get sick, or someone they know and love will get sick. That anxiety may show itself as headaches, stomachaches and withdrawal.

Dr. Kurt Newman, President and CEO of Children’s National Hospital, says other signs include sleeping issues, eating issues, or maybe their school performance has dropped.

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He advises parents to trust their instincts and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

“If the child just doesn’t seem like they ordinarily would be, that’s the kind of thing a parent needs to say ‘this just isn’t right.’ Trust your instincts and if it doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid, don’t let the stigma get in the way of bringing it to someone’s attention,” said Dr. Newman.

I would tell kids that it’s OK and that they are not alone. That there are many people having the feelings that they’re having and they can get help. Whether it’s through their parents or their friends or siblings, that it’s OK and they can get better. And to really not keep it inside. I think that’s the most worrisome thing. Let’s talk about it, hear it out there and get help.

For many parents, this is new territory. Dr. Joshua Corbin, a neuroscientist at Children’s National, who studies how isolation affects the brain, says parents are allowed to “freak out.”

“As a parent, you realize you’re entitled to a freak out. In my household we freaked out. But you also have to realize children may need help. Whatever resources are available that one can gather, there are signs you should pay attention to. And they should be taken seriously because many children need help,” he explained.

Like many parents, he was concerned about the effects of virtual learning on kids. Like many scientists, he was concerned about the impacts of virtual learning on kids’ brains.

Dr. Corbin said he is not surprised by the mental health crisis we're seeing in young children.

“Not at all. This is entirely predictable,” Dr. Corbin said. “All of those critical periods of brain development, and the proper unfolding of them, requires socialization of them. We know that from research."

So when the main social outlets are shutdown, there’s consequences to brain development. It may first manifest as mental health issue, and may manifest down the road as other issues. We’re seeing it born out in reality and don’t know the long-term consequences of that on learning and mental health. What’s going to appear down the road? We just don’t know.

But he says kids are resilient. And he can be certain kids will need a lot of mental health support as they head back to school.

7News is On Your Side with helpful resources for your family, below:

Children’s National Hospital Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Children’s National THEARC


Center’s for Disease Control & Prevention: Children’s Mental Health

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National Institute of Mental Health

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