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The Pandemic’s Impact on Anxiety and Mental Health for Children

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AdobeStock/Екатерина Рукосуева

Writer Phil Reisman reflects on how the coronavirus outbreak has changed the lives of youths in Westchester and across the globe.

Thanks to Covid-19, I have learned a new vocabulary word: trichotillomania.

It’s an anxiety disorder in which people — mainly young people — unconsciously pull out their hair, strand by strand. This is just one type of compulsive behavior that manifests during a prolonged, stress-inducing crisis, like a pandemic. As it happened, a local teacher told me about a middle-school student who began plucking her eyebrows as if they were petals from a daisy.

We’re at the one-year mark with this horrible ordeal, and I wonder how children have been holding up. The psychological effects of social distancing are dramatic. A Gallup poll taken during the first wave of the virus, found that about 30 percent of kids in grades K-12 struggled with depression, sleep problems, and anxiety. Another 14 percent were at their limit.

No doubt, books will be written on this subject for years to come. They will tell of a children’s world turned upside down and inside out by precautionary edicts — stifling masks, sporadic quarantining, and eerie, half-filled classrooms with desks set six feet apart. And for those who stayed at home, they will tell of technology’s limitations of teaching through the grainy window of a Zoom screen.

The studies will be extensive, for sure. They will cover how children coped with the sudden and painful loss of a grandparent. The books will cover how kids felt guilty about things they had no control over, exploring, for instance, why they thought it was their fault when their parents were crushed under the weight of job loss and divorce.

Kids take everything in. They watch us carefully. Some will forever carry this “dark winter” memory: It’s that of an anxious mother or father waiting for COVID-relief money to pay the overdue rent.

Some will remember the media barrage, the alarming nightly news reports from breathless anchormen who resemble Ken dolls and whose favorite adjective is “deadly.” Others may remember the grim, omnipresent CNN death-o-meter, which at this writing put the COVID fatality count rapidly heading north, to 400,000, about twice the population of Yonkers.

It’s been reported in various places that children have been processing the ravages of coronavirus through play. Here and there, you read stories of kids playing doctor, using toy stethoscopes and thermometers to “diagnose” the virus in a sibling. You may have heard the one about two brothers who invented COVID-19 dodgeball, aided by a plastic ball that resembles the virus.

Phil Reisman

Photo by Stefan Radtke

“No doubt, books will be written on this subject for years to come. They will tell of a children’s world turned upside down and inside out by precautionary edicts… and eerie, half-filled classrooms.”

This is how children process crisis, and human nature doesn’t change from one generation to the next. The story goes that during the 1918 influenza, a 2-year-old boy (my future father-in-law) mimicked the funerals of flu victims by interring paper dolls under a rug.

All of this and more will be documented with graphs, percentages, and anecdotal evidence. That’s in the future. But for now, I’m reminded of the fictional Holden Caulfield, who imagined himself in a “big field of rye,” watching over a horde of playing children to make sure they didn’t accidentally topple into an abyss.

Dr. Adam S. Weissman, a clinical psychologist who leads the Child Family Institute in Tarrytown, is acutely aware of the metaphorical abyss and who is most likely to fall into it: children from the poorest families, who don’t have adequate insurance to cover their mental health needs.

Just before the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, Weissman initiated the eponymous Weissman Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit network that has been raising funds to provide highly specialized therapeutic treatment for those who can least afford it. The need for pro bono assistance only increased during the pandemic. Answering the call, the foundation helped nearly 150 families last year with the goal of serving an additional 100 at the start of this year.

“When COVID hit, I said, ‘We have to speed this up,’” Weissman told me. “People are in crisis; unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for mental illness.”

In the end, there’s really just us. We are like Holden Caulfield, “standing on the edge of some crazy cliff…the catcher in the rye.”