Yes, this is an anxious time, and yes, everyone is anxious, but it is particularly hard to be an anxious kid in an anxious time. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in children and adolescents (and this was true before the pandemic), and they can be linked to other mental health issues, notably depression.
Anxiety can bring children into emergency rooms, and into psychiatric hospitalizations, and in a time of generally heightened stress and anxiety, parents with anxious kids find themselves worrying especially about the worriers, wondering how to talk with them about the complexities of life in 2020, and trying to assess when worry is, well, worrisome enough to need professional help.
At Boston Children’s Hospital, during the first months of the pandemic and the general shutdown, the volume of children and adolescents coming in to the emergency room with mental health issues decreased, said Dr. Patricia Ibeziako, the associate chief for clinical services in the hospital’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
It picked up in June, and has increased from the summer through the fall, with more coming in for mental health reasons and also who come to the hospital for other reasons and have anxiety issues. Stress and anxiety may manifest as worsening health, especially for children with underlying medical conditions.
“The highest volume we’re seeing during the pandemic of children presenting to the hospital setting with mental health issues are those with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts — many have anxiety as well, sometimes underlying anxiety disorders,” Dr. Ibeziako said. Adolescents who come in with eating disorders often have anxiety. Children with developmental disabilities have been coming in with agitation and disruptive behaviors reflecting anxiety as the pandemic has disrupted their regular routines.
Even in an anxious time, anxiety is treatable. Dr. Ibeziako said, “First-line management for anxiety is therapy; cognitive behavioral therapy is what we use for children and adolescents.” It involves understanding the thought process of anxiety, she said, and how that affects emotions and behaviors, and helping the child reframe or change problematic thoughts.
Some children, depending on the severity of their symptoms, may require medication as well.