As summer winds down and kids get ready to go back to school, a little bit of anxiety can be normal. Especially since many schools did virtual learning as a result of the pandemic, kids missed seeing and interacting with friends and peers on a daily basis. This may mean daily challenges — like who to sit with at lunch or picking out an outfit that won’t draw a critical eye — seem much more daunting than before.
The anxieties surrounding going back to in-person learning at school are even worse for the 20 percent of school-age kids External Site and teens who are affected by a mental health condition — most commonly anxiety or depression. If you notice that your school-age child seems to be more than just a little nervous about this upcoming transition, or if you’ve seen recent changes in how they behave or handle their emotions, it might be time to keep an eye on their mental health — and seek care, if needed.
Mental health conditions start in childhood
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six children aged 2–8 External Site had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Diagnoses of anxiety and depression in particular also increase with age. An article in The Journal of Pediatrics External Site reports that 7.1 percent of children aged 3–17 have diagnosed anxiety, and 3.2 percent have diagnosed depression.
Any kind of mental health condition in childhood can lead to additional struggles. According to a 15-year study in Chile External Site, children at risk for mental health conditions in first grade experience a 5 percent drop in academic performance by the time they’re in third grade. And expulsions in prekindergarten are nearly twice as common when classrooms don’t have regular access to a mental health professional.
The pandemic’s impact on mental health
An already troublesome issue only worsened during the pandemic. Data from the CDC External Site shows that mental health-related emergency department visits rose 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent among teens ages 12 to 17 from March to October 2020.
This was likely due to the combination of disrupted routines, fear of getting COVID-19 or losing a family member, financial or housing uncertainty, and social isolation. Data from a study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics External Site shows that since March 2020, 14 percent of parents reported worsening behavioral health for their children.
What anxiety can look like in children
While it’s perfectly normal for kids to develop certain fears or worries at different points in their childhood, anxiety is diagnosed when fears are persistent, extreme, or both. Different types of anxiety in children External Site include:
- Separation anxiety — being extremely afraid when separated from parents or caregivers
- Phobias — having an extreme fear about a specific object or situation, like dogs, flying insects, or going to the dentist
- Social anxiety — being afraid of certain places where there are other people, like school
- General anxiety — being very worried about the future or bad things happening to them or loved ones
- Panic disorder — having sudden episodes of unexpected, intense fear with symptoms like heart racing, having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky or sweaty
What depression can look like in children
Depression is more than just being sad. Across all ages, depression is diagnosed when someone feels persistently sad or uninterested in things that they used to enjoy or feels helpless in situations they don’t have any control over. Examples of depression symptoms in children include:
- Feeling sad, hopeless or irritable much of the time
- Having a hard time paying attention in school
- Being tired and sluggish or tense and restless much of the time
- Sleeping and eating a lot more or less than normal
- Not wanting to do or not enjoying fun activities
Depression in children can be harder to spot than anxiety, as children may not talk about how they’re feeling hopeless and may not appear sad. Symptoms may cause them to act out or be unmotivated in a learning setting, which can result in parents, caregivers, or even their pediatrician to label the child as disruptive or lazy.
What to do if you suspect mental health concerns
First things first: If you think your child may have developed a mental health condition as a result of social isolation during the pandemic, talk to their pediatrician. They’ll be able to help with getting an evaluation or recommending a mental health specialist to develop a treatment plan, which usually includes some form of therapy. Once you have a confirmed diagnosis from your child’s pediatrician, you can reach out to their school to help ensure your child is well-supported External Site in their primary learning environment.
You can also help your child manage symptoms of anxiety and depression by encouraging healthy behaviors, including getting enough sleep and physical activity, eating a healthy, balanced diet, and trying techniques for mindfulness or relaxation.
If you're a Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield member and you need help finding a mental health specialist that can address your concerns, simply sign up for or log in to myWellmark® Opens New Window. Once logged in, you can quickly find providers by specialty in your area, see quality scores, view patient ratings, and get an estimate of how much the visit will cost before you even step foot in the clinic.
If you think your child is in immediate danger as a result of a mental health condition, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline External Site at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a skilled mental health counselor nearby. You can also connect to a counselor 24/7 External Site by texting HOME to 741741.