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Coronavirus Crisis May Worsen Symptoms In Children With Anxiety, Depression

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's obvious that the pandemic is affecting many children's mental health. Schools are closed. Many routines of daily life are on hold. Kids face more worry, more sadness. And for children who already have mental health conditions, like anxiety disorder or depression, the effect is magnified. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, Olivia (ph) was in therapy for severe anxiety, which she experienced mostly at school.

OLIVIA: Where I would sit at lunch and who I would hang out with between classes, I always feel like I had to do things for people to feel like I fit in. And that just took the fun out of it.

NEIGHMOND: Olivia's 15, in ninth grade. For privacy reasons, we're not using her last name. Being at home all the time these days offers some relief from anxiety at school, but other emotions have crept in.

OLIVIA: It's definitely made me a lot sadder. I feel more depressed all the time. And it's harder for me to find joy in little moments.

NEIGHMOND: She feels lonely, misses school and her friends, and the anxiety she feels now is focused more on the unknown.

OLIVIA: Nobody knows really what's happening and when it's going to be over and how to fix it. So I don't really get that validation of people being able to coach me through it like I normally have.

NEIGHMOND: At the Child Mind Institute where Olivia receives coaching and therapy, president and psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz says her experience is pretty typical.

HAROLD KOPLEWICZ: There are a lot of parents who are calling us who are telling us that their kids are worried.

NEIGHMOND: Now, this isn't the case with Olivia, but Koplewicz says during the pandemic, many parents have been describing some surprising behaviors.

KOPLEWICZ: Instead of looking anxious, instead of looking meek, instead of looking withdrawn, they're more rambunctious. They're more oppositional. They're more defiant.

NEIGHMOND: Behaviors that are expected, he says, when kids are extremely worried and don't know how to handle it. Now, if the child has access to telehealth, then he says routine therapy should be continued if possible. If not, there are some things parents can do in the meantime. No. 1 - structure, in bite-sized pieces for younger kids.

KOPLEWICZ: Let's wake up at the same time. Let's make sure you brush your teeth, wash your face. We'll have breakfast at a certain time. Dinnertime, we're going to talk about other things besides the coronavirus, about things that you learned at school. And we are going to have to create as parents structures that usually other people do, whether it's school, whether it's after-school activities. And it's essential that parents do that.

NEIGHMOND: For older kids and teens, he says let them know what you're doing to destress - exercising, mindfulness, reading, listening to music. Now, when the pandemic subsides, the anxiety and sadness kids feel won't simply disappear. Psychiatrist Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, expects a definite increase in mental health needs for children.

JOSHUA GORDON: We don't know the magnitude of that increase, but we do know there will be an increase.

NEIGHMOND: But due to a shortage of child psychologists and psychiatrists, he says this means other institutions will have to step up.

GORDON: Assuming schools will be open, we want to make sure that schools provide mental health services and can expect an increase in demand for those services. Children also receive care through community mental health centers, through their primary care physicians.

NEIGHMOND: This will require an influx of funding for mental health services, as well as incentives to boost the number of child psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists, especially among individuals of color. Psychologist Erlanger Turner is spokesperson for the American Psychological Association.

ERLANGER TURNER: For many communities, having someone that looks like them or that is from their community is really important to getting them to engage in treatment and also feel like they can trust that person more than a provider who doesn't look like them.

NEIGHMOND: A recent APA survey finds 84% of psychologists identify as white. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KLIMEKS' "ENTER THE VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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