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The Silent Pandemic: Depression, Self-Harm, and Suicide

The rapid increase in depression, self-harm, and suicide since Covid-19 in children and adolescents is alarming and requires our immediate attention. Children have lost their routines, friends, activities, sports, independence, time in nature, travel, and necessary novel stimulation. The losses children are experiencing in this pandemic are significant; for many, these may be the most devastating losses they’ve ever experienced, and children’s resilience has been impacted. Too many children have lost their sparkle and hope, and we see this surfacing in the form of depression and self-harm, even amongst our youngest and healthiest.

Children and adolescents may not be adept at recognizing, expressing, or coping with isolation and with the resulting losses in their lives. As we appropriately and necessarily hold our children in ‘lock down’, children may experience a deep sense of loss of control, powerlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness, all critical psychological markers for depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide.

In my practice, parents are increasingly reporting behaviors that indicate that children and adolescents are suffering deeply. Watch your children for:

If your child is exhibiting these behaviors, it is critical to talk to them about how they are feeling and what they need, and you may need to provide them with additional mental health support with a counselor or psychologist.

Although we cannot predict the path of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are unsure when schools will re-open, we can as parents, educators, and providers, take the initiative to re-empower our children with three vital ingredients: Hope, Creativity, and Fun. This is the moment to think out-of-the-box and re-engage our children in novel and stimulating activities to re-boot their minds and bodies, and get their endorphins flowing. Keep in mind, though, that in this process, children must have control and choices; if it is the adult dictating ‘how to’ or ‘what to’, the positive impact is lost as the activity becomes another burdensome ‘have to’.

Hope: It is very important for children to have hope; to look forward to something extraordinary, meaningful, and super-exciting. This can be an effective way to help get their minds out of the fog isolation has brought on and into thoughts of the future. Planning future vacations, visits with family and friends, weekend trips, important events (birthdays, anniversaries, future graduations), can create a sense of movement and the realization that one day, the mundane life of daily chores and on-line school will come to an end.

Creativity: Facilitate creative daily projects that allow children to use their imagination. Arts, crafts, mechanics, woodwork, building computers and cars, gardening, magic kits, water play, costumes, sewing, and culinary arts are all good choices to offer your child. Create long lists of options, and create spaces in your garage, bathrooms, kitchens, and backyards for your children to immerse themselves in creative play. For instance, I had one client whose parents described their daughter as a ‘ghost of a child’; severely depressed and disengaged, she refused to leave the house for days. The parents thought out-of-the-box and had her collect tadpoles from a nearby lagoon. She built ‘ponds’ for them in the backyard to watch them grow into frogs. The child was overjoyed and spent delightful hours with her ‘new friends’. Creativity is the source of light and joy and can be incredibly therapeutic for children and adolescents.

Fun: Children need to have fun to stay resilient, active, engaged, and hopeful. From a child’s perspective, daily fun is essential. Craft structured or spontaneous daily fun activities with the family, a few trusted friends, and teachers to re-invigorate your children with enthusiasm and laughter. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, balloon tosses, slip and slides, sprinklers, magic and talent shows, and costume parties are simple but fun ways to breathe life back into kids. For teenagers, support their small social circles, their romantic relationships, safe outdoor sports such as surfing, running, hiking, and camping to gradually re-infuse them with motivation and engagement. If adolescents are connected, motivated, and engaged in fun activities, they are far less likely to use substances or self-harm to escape and cope with their depression and helplessness.

The benefits of containing the pandemic are great – many lives have been saved – but we must also recognize that it has come at a huge cost to our children. With no end in sight and schools indefinitely closed, children are struggling with a silent pandemic of their own, and depression, self-harm, and even suicide rates will continue to rise unless we, as parents, educators, and mental health professionals, recognize and address this silent pandemic. Ensuring that our children’s days are infused with hope, creativity, and fun will go a long way toward ensuring that our children remain healthy and resilient. For those children whose suffering is not relieved by these efforts, connecting them with professional mental health care is imperative.