Michigan child trauma soared during pandemic

click to enlarge Sad child in protective medical masks looks out the window. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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Sad child in protective medical masks looks out the window.

As more folks are vaccinated and reopening continues, mental-health experts say it's important to acknowledge and treat the trauma many children and teens experienced during the pandemic.

Kids were concerned about a deadly, contagious disease during a time of political turmoil, and were separated from friends or family without the stabilizing influence of schools, said Bob Sheehan, CEO of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan.

He said 34% of Michigan children reported feeling anxious for seven days in a row during October 2020, and 22% reported feeling depressed. That's a 50% increase from the previous year.

"It's not surprising," said Sheehan. "They're responding appropriately. That's a rational response, to be anxious and depressed. The impact of these crises will last for years, and the way to make sure we address that is to be attentive to it, and provide services and supports throughout the years that come."

The entire nation has seen a rise in childhood trauma in the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds hospitals saw a 24% increase in mental health-related emergency-room visits by kids ages five to 11 between April and October last year.

For older kids, the number rose 31%.

Sheehan said he thinks the use of telehealth was a lifesaver for many children experiencing distress. He said Medicaid data show the number of Michigan kids getting mental-health treatment online skyrocketed - from zero before the pandemic to a high of about 30,000 last April.

"In some cases, these are the first times these kids sought treatment," said Sheehan. "And telehealth allowed them to stay at home and get that treatment. In fact, a lot of families said, 'We hope that can continue.'"

Darnell Burtin - vice president of development with Easterseals of D.C., Maryland, Virginia - also recommended parents intentionally engage in activities with their children, which can open up conversations about how they're doing.

"I don't really care about the playoffs when my middle son wants to talk," said Burtin. "And I just let them talk. And infused in there was, 'Man this was a tough day.' Or, 'Hey, can I ask you a question about this? I'm nervous, what do you think about the shot for teenagers, Dad?'"

This year, Michigan lawmakers increased funding for a budget item known as 31N, which provides mental health support in public schools.

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