Pre-teens and teens are greatly suffering emotionally during this pandemic. I want to give you insight into being a pediatrician in this pandemic. As a pediatrician, I used to see many ear infections, colds, and sore throats. We are seeing very little of that now, which is good, but what we are seeing is a lot more horrific for our kids. This pandemic IS a health crisis, but for our children it is a mental health crisis, as well.
You would be shocked to see the growth charts that I see in my office. I am either seeing pre-teens and teens that have 20- to 30-pound gains in weight over this pandemic or drastic eating disorders. I have had to admit a disturbing number of teens into intense eating programs for anorexia. I am seeing a huge increase in constipation, and that is because kids are sedentary, and they’re not eating well. What’s even worse is the rise in mental illness that I am seeing. I have never seen this many kids suffering with mental illness in all of my 20 years of being a pediatrician.
Arizona just posted a study showing a 67% increase in teen suicide. A Connecticut ER physician posted last weekend that his ER had 33% of teens admitted for a suicide attempt. Psychiatrists and psychologists are very expensive for parents and have long wait lists as well so this becomes very difficult for parents to navigate the system to get help for their child. Due to the drastic rise in mental health that I am seeing and the cries for help from the parents, I found it important to start treating this in my practice. Therefore, I took a seminar that taught Pediatricians how to detect and treat mental illness, so parents can bypass the psychiatrist and get help quicker for their child. This is my passion to help detect those suffering and treat them appropriately!
Obviously, the best answer to this is to get our middle and high schools open full-time for our teens, especially those who are suffering. If teens are involved in sports and clubs and band or are working, they have an outlet and therefore there is less chance of isolation. The ones who are not involved in those activities are having more serious issues. However, anyone can suffer from depression and anxiety and in one of our surrounding states, a star football player recently committed suicide.
When I see a teen or preteen for a routine, I perform an emotional screening check. You would be shocked and disturbed to see how many are abnormal. In fact, many parents are just as surprised and did not know that their kids are suffering so significantly. When I delve further into the history, the school has no idea these kids are suffering as well.
We have a lot of silent sufferers out there.
How are we detecting those silent suffers? Again, obviously when schools are open full time, teachers and guidance counselors can detect those in need of help. In the virtual world it is very difficult to determine who is suffering. If Middle and High Schools remain closed/hybrid 2 half days per week, how can we do a better job to detect these silent sufferers? Governor Murphy just passed a $1.2 billion federal COVID-19 relief fund for schools, with grants for mental health. I think SPF should jump on that and get those grants for our schools. We should start to screen kids for mental illness in our schools right now. I am willing to help anyone on the Board of Education, the nurses, or Dr. Mast to get these programs started and teach people how to do these screenings.
PHQ9 is a simple, nine-question survey to help determine if someone is suffering. There is also an ASQ which is a simple five-point questionnaire to help determine if the person is suicidal. These are crucial things that we need to start implementing in our schools, especially with kids absent from the schools. I see a lot of kids and parents crying in my office way more than in years past. We really need to try and figure out how we can help silent sufferers who are at risk of suicide before it is too late! I had one case where a child was having an A/A+ average drop to D+ average in some classes and no one found out until the report card came out. The parent confronted the school, and they said they didn’t know the child was suffering.
My concern is the silent sufferers. Our school district created a web page for people to go to for the virtual mental health relief. It is great that they offer that. However, the problem is that the silent sufferers are not going to reach out to that. When someone is suffering from depression, they lose all motivation and have a lack of interest in things they normally enjoyed. So a truly depressed teen may not use the virtual room—not because they do not want to but because they are so depressed they can’t motivate themselves to use it or reach out for help.
This is who we need to find and help—the silent sufferers. How do you detect who needs the help when the teens/preteens are hiding their feelings from their parents and when schools are closed or mostly virtual? Either we need to do some screenings to find out who is suffering, or we need to bring them back to school so that the teachers can see them in person and see that they are not making eye contact, not smiling (which you can still tell with a mask by their eyes and facial expressions) and not engaging in conversations.
We should try to get that grant from Governor Murphy, and let’s try to implement these screening tools. There was a quote that I recently saw that is really relevant: “It’s time to stop seeing our kids as disease vectors and instead let’s see them as cherished individuals in a society to whom we owe our allegiance and care."
Screenings are needed to detect the mental illness that is arising because of this pandemic. Kids are isolated and alone, and they need help.
Scotch Plains, NJ
Editor's Note: Dr. Sharon Filler is a member of Somerset Pediatric Group. She has four children in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood SPFK12 school district.