We are facing a national child and adolescent mental health crisis. Dr. Vivek H. Murphy, U.S. surgeon general warned of the “devastating” impact of the pandemic on young people.
Three of the leading organizations in the field agree. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have cited dramatic increases in emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies, including suspected suicide attempts. Social media and its increased use due to the global pandemic is a leading factor in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among today’s youth. Children and teens need other outlets and coping skills.
Mental health struggles are not novel
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, data from the National Survey of Children's Health showed that while as many as 1-in-6 U.S. children had a treatable mental health disorder, approximately half of them were not being treated for it.
Now, when our communities are still dealing with pandemic protocols and decreased socialization, kids whose mental health has been impacted are not bouncing back as quickly or easily as we’d like. From the teen girls who started experiencing tics and violent outbursts possibly due to watching TikTok videos of people with Tourette syndrome, to stories of children’s social skills regressing due to near isolation from their peers, it’s clear we need to do something now while we can still correct the course for many young people.
One teen's experience with mental health: I'm not counting on my anxiety ever going away
As a clinical social worker in the Washington, D.C., area, I work with a diverse group of clients with a variety of struggles. Many are young people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. I help them cope with these feelings in healthy, productive ways. One step I often suggest is for the young person to assemble a coping tool box, which is an actual container filled with items that can help them soothe themselves in a time of panic or anxiety so they can practice mindfulness.
Coping tool boxes are particularly helpful for young people who are dealing with a great amount of stress. It is important that children participate in assembling it themselves. That will give them a sense of comfort and control and they will see the coping tool box as something that is uniquely theirs.
The items I recommend to include are:
► Something that provides proprioceptive (the body's awareness of itself and its limbs) support, such as a weighted cushion, vest, or stuffed animal;
► An item to squeeze and keep their hands occupied like a stress ball or fidget spinner;
► Items to support breathing and relaxation such as a bottle of bubbles or a pinwheel;
► Olfactory sensory support, aka something that smells good like a calming essential oil spray;
► Something that requires movement like a book of yoga poses or a jump rope;
► A favorite playlist of music and noise-canceling headphones;
► An item for oral motor sensory support like sugar free chewing gum;
► Something that requires thought or concentration like a puzzle or reading book;
► And something visually soothing such as an hourglass or even an eye mask to block everything out so they can concentrate on their calming efforts.
These ideas can be transferred into adulthood, too. But children have a special need to tap into all five senses, especially as the pandemic has cut so many other opportunities for enrichment out of their lives.
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It may seem that many of these items are very basic and could be found in many people’s bags or pockets on a day-to-day basis regardless of whether they struggle with anxiety.
But that’s the beauty of it – many people already have the items needed to self soothe and they don’t even know they’re doing it. But for those for whom calming down doesn’t come naturally or who have had unique experiences that have caused them to require more effort to relax, these boxes and the items in them can be lifesavers.
Take gum for instance. Whenever someone has an increased sense of anxiety, it is important they have the tools needed to ground themselves and chewing gum is an excellent way to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or grounding, techniques are used to bring a person to the present moment by turning them away from an intrusive memory, intense thought, and/or fear. This can be done through things like breathing exercises, going for a walk, or chewing gum. In the case of chewing gum, I would direct a client to engage all their senses in the activity. They should notice the color of the gum, the taste of it, the act of chewing, the smell, and even how it feels in their mouths.
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All of these steps can help reduce stress by getting them to focus on the moment.
The ability to stay mindful is more important now than ever. A recent study found that children who had no exposure to normal anxiety-provoking situations, such as the pressures of attending in-person school, were more fearful.
Put simply, today’s youth are missing out on the opportunity to overcome their normal childhood fears and run the risk of turning to less healthy coping methods. Helping them self-soothe and providing the materials needed to do it could stop them from developing destructive coping habits like smoking, overeating, or abusing drugs. Teaching kids to be mindful is one of life’s most valuable lessons.
Alysha Tagert, MSW, LICSW, is a mental health service provider who specializes in anxiety, depression, grief and loss, trauma, and PTSD.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Youth mental health crisis: A simple coping toolbox can help children