Experts warn of a ‘dark cloud’ for kids’ mental health amid pandemic

An artist’s rendering of the coronavirus. (Illustration courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Mental healthcare professionals are warning of the looming impacts on young people from the current measures to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. At a press conference Friday hosted by the Anchorage mayor’s office, behavioral health experts offered advice to parents for helping children and teens stay maintain their mental health during the pandemic.

There’s not clear evidence in Anchorage of widespread distress among young people, according to Friday’s speakers. However, mental health professionals in Alaska say with schools closed and pervasive uncertainty, the conditions are ripe for isolation, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Julia Luey is a vice president of treatment services at Volunteers of America in Alaska, and said nationally psychologists see a “dark cloud” on the horizon for children and adolescents.

“I can’t speak to any data points that I know of at this time, but I feel pretty confident we’ll have them in the near future,” she said.

With schools, sports, and many social services shut down, Luey said there are few counselors available for young people to report abuse or mental distress to.

As an antidote, experts recommend families focus on instilling safety, care, and purpose into home life as much as possible. That means limiting exposure to stressful information, building in time for fun activities, and relaxing expectations for productivity. Tad Sumner is a therapist and psychology professor at University of Alaska Anchorage, and said during remarks that one of the best things parents can do for kids is diminish fear.

“Try to limit the amount of time you take in information about coronavirus, and try to be intentional about the things you think will bring you joy. Try to give yourself and others and your children grace. Try to understand that this is not normal. And try not to think about ‘well what if this goes on forever?!’ Ok, it’s not,” he said.

Sumner also recommended family activities, whether that’s video games, hikes, or even a two-hour online painting course. But in order to lessen the likelihood of mental and behavioral health problems stemming from the current pandemic, he counseled the best things to do are reduce day-to-day anxiety and keep connected with loved ones.

Counselors with the municipal Health Department are available, call 907-343-6718.

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