A panel of mental health experts discussed how the coronavirus pandemic, social media and living in a world filled with uncertainty will continue to impact school-aged children and young adults during from a virtual forum hosted by Blank Slate Media last week.
The event, moderated by Blank Slate Media editor and publisher Steven Blank, featured Dr. Liat Jarkon, director of the Center for Behavioral Health, Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, and Andrew Malekoff, the former executive director and CEO of the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights.
About a decade before the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, Jarkon said, concerns about mental health began to occur more frequently. Since the start of the pandemic, she said, the number of people with mental illnesses has increased to such an extent that the mental health crisis has become its own epidemic.
“In about 2009-2010, a lot of the mental health community started saying ‘we have to be careful, there’s something going on here,'” Jarkon said. “What has happened since the pandemic is that the numbers have skyrocketed. It has catapulted the number of people – children, adults and the elderly – struggling with issues of anxiety, depression, domestic violence and substance abuse.
For children, Malekoff said, structure is one of the most important factors in development. With the pandemic causing loss of structure in the form of death, poverty or even not being able to attend school in the traditional pre-COVID way, he said, this may contribute to children developing mental illnesses in the future.
“The accumulation of risk factors is a sign of the extent to which a child is at risk of developing poor outcomes in their lifetime,” Malekoff said. “To mitigate the risk, there are protective factors which are, for example, a good relationship with an adult or a peer group or connection to school.”
Malekoff called on schools, pediatricians and mental health clinics to screen for negative childhood experiences so they can get a better idea of the risk factors an individual has been exposed to.
Reynolds said the issues FCA has seen first-hand reflect the bigger picture across the country. As the association tries to prioritize the Long Island community and the mental health issues it deals with on a daily basis, he said, staffing issues due to the pandemic have at times hampered the ability of do it.
“At the same time there’s been a COVID crisis, there’s a workforce crisis and I’m having trouble filling positions at FCA,” Reynolds said. “I’ve had well-trained social workers who, due to stress in their own lives merging with work stress, said, ‘I’m going to work at Walmart over the holidays. They pay $20 an hour, I only make $19 an hour as a social worker, and Walmart is much less stressful.
Malekoff said there should be more ways to help the roughly 140,000 children in the United States who have lost their primary or secondary caregiver to the pandemic and who are at higher risk of developing mental illnesses. during their lifetime. Whether it is members of the older generation who were children when national or world wars occurred or the younger generation who experienced the coronavirus pandemic, he said, children who have experienced a profound loss in their life should have their mental health assessed by a professional.
In terms of the impact of social media on the younger generation, Jarkon said, parents should promote other hobbies and activities that can boost their children’s growth and support their mental health. The anxiety that comes with being completely immersed in social media, she said, can lead children and even young adults to compare their situation with others they know or see online.
“Studies have shown that [children] get depressed and anxious because they compare themselves to everyone else,” Jarkon said. “I think if we spend more time with our kids, engaging them in family activities like family game night, they’ll have less time to spend on social media and be kind of isolated.”
Reynolds reflected on his experiences telling parents to act like a parent rather than a friend to their children. Children, he said, can easily pick up on their parents’ behavior, even if it’s just someone checking Facebook or Twitter during a dinner conversation. What young people see when they go online, Reynolds said, also plays a big role in the development of insecurities or mental illnesses.
“Parents should want to make sure they keep those lines of communication open with their kids because they see and hear a lot of things and they need an adult to process that,” Reynolds said. “It should be the parents, not someone else.”
Malekoff said parents of children under 18 who may be suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental disorders should contact the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center. Reynolds also praised the work of the FCA, but implored parents and everyone else to ask how someone is doing.
“You don’t have to be a mental health expert to approach someone and just ask if they’re okay,” Reynolds said. “It goes a long way and for a lot of people it opens the door to a much broader conversation.”
Jarkon said anyone who expresses a desire to self-harm should be taken to the emergency room immediately. Using other resources, including those provided by the New York Institute of Technology, can also help parents identify any mental health issues in their children.
“Knowing that you’re not alone and that help is available is really the most important thing,” Jarkon said.
The full meeting can be viewed online on The Island Now’s YouTube page.