Over the last two years, there has been much conversation around mental health, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began. At the core of our societal obligations are our children, which is why a panel of trusted doctors across the U.S. held a virtual town hall meeting titled “Mental Wealth: COVID’s Impact on Mental Health in the Black Community.”
And here are five doctor-recommended ways parents and caregivers can be proactive in helping their children maintain optimal mental wellness.
1. Identify symptoms of mental illness
In children, being mentally healthy means “reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, children have been experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression in recent years.
“There are a variety of ways that kids can present mental health issues, anxiety, and depression — when we can’t function in school, when we’re not able to maintain friendships, when we’re no longer interacting with the family, and we just want to stay in our room all day,” Dr. Samira Brown, a primary care pediatrician at Piedmont Healthcare, said.
While children may not always understand why they feel the way that they feel, Dr. Brown shared that it’s important to recognize and address the way children learn, behave, and handle their emotions.
2. Talk to your child about how they are feeling
Parents and caregivers are the first ones to teach children how to manage their emotions. Although having conversations about emotional topics may feel uncomfortable for both parents and children, it builds a foundation of trust when navigating different feelings.
“Having those conversations with children when they are not happy is probably going to be one of the best conversations you can have,” Dr. Byron Jasper said. He is the CEO of Byja Clinic, Louisiana’s first Black-owned direct primary care practice. “When you do that early on, it gives them the platform to open up to negative feelings.”
Dr. Kendell Jasper, a clinical psychologist at Jasper Psychological Services, noted that having conversations with children today when it comes to behavior and emotions may look different from how parents were raised growing up.
“Times have changed. Things are different. We also understand that there’s more than one way to manage a situation. Not that our parents were wrong, but not that this way of managing things is wrong as well,” Dr. Jasper said.
3. Set boundaries on internet usage
With quarantine, school closures, and online learning environments, children and adolescents are increasingly exposed to the internet. Social media puts children more at risk for anxiety and depression. Therefore, Dr. Brown encourages parents to be proactive about monitoring what their children are doing online.
“When it comes to internet access, you definitely want to make sure that you have parental controls on, that you’re monitoring what’s happening, that you know who your kids are playing games with,” Dr. Brown said. “You want to make sure that you are being very vigilant when it comes to what your kids are exposed to, even the messages that they are receiving. Please be mindful that it does increase their risk of mental illness.”
4. Be proactive in seeking preventive care
Preventive care can reduce the chances of serious mental illness. Reaching out to a school counselor or pediatrician early and regularly will be key to finding and accessing mental health resources for children.
“You don’t want to wait until it’s an emergency. Come to your pediatrician and get screened. Get your referrals. Make that appointment. Establish therapy,” Dr. Brown shared. “It doesn’t mean your child is going to be on medicine. It doesn’t mean your child is going to be hospitalized. Coming in, establishing, and getting those screenings is how we prevent those mental health emergencies.”
5. Get your child vaccinated if they are eligible.
COVID-19 vaccines help to prevent infection, reduce the spread of the virus, and allow children to stay in school and continue participating in different activities which helps to relieve mental health burdens. Children five years old and older are currently eligible to get vaccinated.
“If you look at 5- to 11-year-old children, we have vaccinated eight million children just here in the U.S. That’s a lot of safety data,” Dr. Brown said. “This is a safe vaccine. It’s a third of the dose that adults get. Kids are doing phenomenally well with it.”
To find a vaccine site, search vaccines.gov, text your ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find locations near you. For more information about vaccinations and health resources, visit the Stay Well Community Facebook page.
To watch the virtual town hall in its entirety, visit the Stay Well Community Health Fairs YouTube Channel.