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COVID-19 and its impact on mental health: Part Two

Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 5:30 PM EDT
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BANGOR, Maine (WABI) - Amidst the pandemic, many adults found themselves dealing with mental health challenges. That trickled down to adolescents, too.

TV5 spoke with local mental health professionals about the need for care and, how we can talk to kids about their mental health.

In about a month from now, kids around the state will head back to class.

How that may look depends on the school and the district they’re in.

However, one thing is for certain, many schools will be playing “catch up” with students and trying to re-engage them into a traditional school setting after months of online learning.

“It’s going to be really important that people are openly communicating and understanding that it’s a struggle for everybody to make adjustment after adjustment, and really being open and vulnerable to that, and knowing it will help,” explained Karen Gardner, a pediatric clinician at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor.

It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic for many adults, and children, too.

After months of isolation, stress, and uncertainty, many came to their breaking point and needed immediate mental health services.

“I work a lot with kids around self-empowerment, around believing in themselves, and feeling good about who they are as people,” she said.

TV5 spoke to Gardner in May of 2021.

At the time, she was seeing up to 100 kids come into her office for services. The youngest? Four years old.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the ne

“I have a lot more who need services. Now, we just can’t meet that need,” Gardner said.

The same can be said for NAMI Maine.

“One of the things that the pandemic has done is that it has lowered the stigma around mental health needs because we all struggle,” said Greg Marley, Executive Director of NAMI Maine. “As a result, the demand for counseling has been very high. On the one hand, that’s good because people are reaching out for help, and it’s frustrating that they can’t find it. I think that’s going to be an issue for a while.”

Through support, education, and advocacy, NAMI’s goal is to help the one in four Mainers affected by mental illness.

“We have a task ahead of us,” Marley said. “How do we recapture those kids and get them back into the fold of school and move forward in a healthy way?”

Gardner says as kids head back to school, it may be easy to forget that children were isolated and impacted by the pandemic.

It’s important to recognize we’re all human and have experienced many of the same burdens and losses.

“None of us have gone through this before, and so, our coping skills are developing. As we go along, we have less to give our kids immediately because we don’t know what to do either,” she said.

With kids away from school, their friends, and their daily routines, many were struggling, according to Marley.

He was especially worried about kids who are under supported at home, or at risk.

“For those kids with a good home life and good stable relationships and are introverted and learn alone, they’re thriving,” Marley said. “For the kids who are extroverted and need that interaction with their peers and with adults through school who may struggle learning online and independently, that has been hard. On top of that is the uncertainty and the fear around COVID-19.”

It’s been a challenge for kids in more rural parts of the state where there is greater distances to connect with resources and peers.

“We’re working with kids who have had more neglect and more disruption in their family setting in their early years, and they’re coming into schools with higher needs. So, at risk at that age it’s trauma and deprivation, social and emotional learning needs, and then it gets reflected more at-risk behavior as they age,” said Marley.

So, what are some of the warning signs or at-risk behaviors parents should be looking for in their kids?

“Wearing long-sleeve clothes when it’s warm, that may be a sign that they’re self-harming. Weight loss and weight gain, anything that is out of the norm for that child can be a red flag that something is happening to their mental health,” said Gardner.

On top of concerns about mental health, a new study suggests two-thirds of teens are worried about attending in-person classes this fall.

Their top concern is that the quality of education will suffer due to the pandemic.

“A lot of my teens that hold themselves to a high standard worry that they’re not going to be performing well enough, that they’re not going to get the education that they need and that they would get in a classroom, as well as the engagement with teachers that they really want,” said Gardner. It’s going to be really important that people are openly communicating and understanding that it’s a struggle for everybody to make adjustment after adjustment, and really being open and vulnerable to that, and knowing it will help.”

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If you or someone you know is experiencing COVID-related stress, StrengthenME offers free stress management and resources to anyone in Maine. For assistance, call 221-8198.

The Maine Crisis Hotline: 1-888-568-1112

If you are not in Maine, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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