Mental Health Infrastructure for a Pandemic
Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
Robert Kilkenny, PhD
Northeast Regional Site Director, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
This year, the usual excitement surrounding the holidays was tinged with apprehension about the pandemic’s Omicron variant and its impact on plans to spend time with family and friends. The good news is that COVID vaccines have proven to be highly effective in reducing severe illness and hospitalization. The combination of vaccines, masks, and continued pool-testing in schools will hopefully prevent widespread school closures in the coming months.
While it is important to maintain optimism about the future, the pandemic has already had a significant negative impact on the emotional and social well-being of children. Last month the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory Protecting Youth Mental Health about the state of child and adolescent mental health during the pandemic. To address youth well-being Dr. Murthy states that we must take a “whole-of-society approach” to address the need for more resources to be devoted to understanding and addressing mental health challenges. The advisory outlines helpful and hopeful actions that all of us – individuals, families, communities, and the government- can take to support youth as we move through and beyond the pandemic.
The report also discusses the key role that schools can play in supporting the mental health of young people during this time of unprecedented stress and loss. This includes expanding SEL programs and evidence-based services and expanding the mental health workforce in schools. It also spotlights the importance of positive mental health and well-being of school personnel if we are to create the best possible environment for students to learn and grow in.best possible environment for students to learn and grow in.
The report emphasizes the vital role that families and caregivers have in promoting youth mental health by listening and attuning to the stresses youth are feeling. Openly discussing the impact of stress on mental and physical health can model good habits such as seeking help when you need it and showing positive ways you deal with stress, so children learn from you. Show them love and acceptance, praise them for the things they do well, and listen to them about their stressful feelings. A committed and caring parent or adult has been found to be the most important building block for resilience. Such support will help children learn to seek the support they need when they feel distress.
There is hope that in 2022 we can buffer the stress children feel in another year of pandemic by fostering positive social connections and emotional support at home, in school, and the larger community.