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HomeArticleEasing Anxiety in Children: COVID Generation Sees Increase in Stress

Easing Anxiety in Children: COVID Generation Sees Increase in Stress

Easing Anxiety in Children: COVID Generation Sees Increase in Stress

Students work on an assignment in class at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 7 in New York City. Masks are optional for public-school children in New York as of March 7, though most students and teachers were still wearing them as of that date. Mask-wearing is among the recent sources of anxiety among children and teens. (photo: Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

Catholic experts offer practical advice in light of new screening recommendations.

In light of rising anxiety in children and teens, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended, in a draft released last week, that children as young as 8 should be screened for anxiety, and children 12 or older should be screened for depression.

The draft addressed its importance by citing statistics from the 2018-2019 “National Survey of Children’s Health,” noting that 7.8% of children and adolescents ages 3 to 17 years old had an anxiety disorder. Such disorders come with an increased likelihood of future anxiety or depression. However, screenings of ages younger than those recommended will be ineffective, according to the task force.

These drafts are open to public comment through May 9, after which the task force issues final recommendations.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of many children and adolescents, with harmful effects resulting in increased anxiety and depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 high-school students experienced poor mental health through June 2021, and 44% of those surveyed said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year.

In addition to that, 20% of the students surveyed said they had seriously considered attempting suicide.

And while pandemic restrictions have eased very substantially in recent weeks in most U.S. jurisdictions, there is no guarantee that they won’t be reimposed.

For example, the city of Philadelphia, its COVID-19 case numbers spiking, recently reinforced its mask mandate, with some college campuses following in its wake, including Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown and American universities.

Philadelphia’s mandate will require masking in schools, childcare settings, businesses, restaurants and government buildings. The department also asked city residents to report non-complying businesses.

 

Mental-Health Crisis

“Once the lockdown started, our societies experienced a sense of being out of control like we hadn’t felt in decades,” observed clinical psychologist Tim Lock, director of psychological services at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, and founder and director of the Goretti Center for Healing and Forgiveness in Brookfield, Connecticut. “The unpredictability of the virus and mandates, the changing messages from the medical field, the scare tactics of politicians, the dehumanization of masks: All of this taken together has caused our collective mental health to tank.”

Mandy Mullen, licensed social worker and certified trauma therapist, will soon be president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association. The association’s mission focuses on promoting developing psychological theory and mental-health practice, seeking to fully understand the human person, the family and society, all through the lens of the magisterium.

Today, she observes the difficulty of reintegration into society. Her practice is currently completely full, with new requests and referrals coming in daily.

“Generation Z has been labeled the loneliest generation because they’re the first generation that has been raised with technology. They have everything at their fingertips; they don’t need to reach out to another person,” Mullen said. “Different generations before that, we didn’t just have to go on Google or Reddit or get lost in TikTok videos. We’re not connecting with another soul during that whole time [online]. You get lost.”

Reintegrating into schools can trigger a fight-or-flight response, producing anxiety, Mullen explained. After spending time only interacting online, often without cameras on, students return to an in-person environment that still limits their human interaction. Mullen described the mask requirements being lifted as losing a “layer of protection.”

“The masks are an insecurity, too,” Mullen said, explaining common concerns. “‘I have acne from the mask,’ or ‘I don’t really like my smile,’ or ‘My teeth are messed up,’ or ‘I don’t want people to see me.’”

 

Consequences

Children can experience anxiety in a variety of symptoms. Some manifest as physical responses like stomachaches and headaches, which, according to California clinical psychologist Marinés Novoa, can complicate catching on to the signs.

“We all benefit from coping skills. We all benefit from overall education on how to care for our mental health,” Novoa said. “Screening could be good. Maybe even beyond that, informing parents on what the warning signs are or what to look out for: How can you support your child?”

When Mullen works with teenagers, she’s working with their parents too, often encouraging them to separate their children from technology. Parents sometimes share they hadn’t considered that or how they’re frustrated they can’t seem to get their children off phones.

“We’re not powerless as parents. You’ve provided the phones; you can take them away,” Mullen said. “I’ve had parents that do that, and they’re like, ‘It’s so much better. We’re able to socialize. I feel like I have my child back in some way.’”

Lock described anxiety as an experience that can potentially paralyze the whole person. Everyone will feel the emotional and physical effects of anxiety, but for some it can become a larger problem.

“A young kid with non-clinical school anxiety may feel some butterflies in his stomach as mom drops him off at school; a kid with clinical anxiety may vomit once or twice on the drive and then refuse to get out of the car. Some may say, ‘That sounds like a bad attitude,’” Lock said. “As a clinician, I can tell you that ‘bad attitudes’ often have something deep down that is the cause of the bad attitude.”

Parental wisdom is the first place to start, but if writings and recommendations don’t lead to a decrease in anxiety, Lock advises talking to a professional about how to address the problem.

“Catholic spiritual writers and some Catholic therapists will say, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.’ That is all good advice, but someone with clinical anxiety will be unable to internalize and utilize those good messages,” Lock explained. “The anxiety is like a sound filter that mutes the otherwise beautiful music.”

 

How the Church Can Counsel

In 2020, a Gallup poll found that people attending weekly religious services reported their mental health was excellent, rising by 4% compared to 2019’s poll. Those who attended services monthly instead saw a 12% decrease in reporting excellent mental health, and people who attended seldom or never reported a 13% drop.

“There are some parishes across the nation that are developing more mental-health ministries. It’s not treatment, but let’s create awareness and provide that spiritual accompaniment,” Novoa said. “Let’s guide people in the right direction.”

Someone heavily involved in their church or faith might seek to turn to their parish for support first during a mental-health crisis. Novoa finds it’s important for each parish to provide access to resources.

Lock, a father of eight, described his experience of taking his children to a therapist as an “excruciating experience of powerlessness.”

He recalled an encounter he had with his own father at 16 years old, when his father asked him, “Why don’t you talk to me?” Lock just looked out the window of the car, pretending he hadn’t heard the question. Sometimes a wall goes up between the child and parents when the child goes through puberty, Lock explained, despite even the kindest parental efforts.

“This beautiful child who used to eagerly respond to my guidance is now, well, looking out the window. It is scary to take your kid to a therapist,” Lock said. “I’ve had kids with secular therapists and with Catholic therapists. I can tell you: I trust the Catholic therapist more.”

Most secular therapists are people of goodwill, he added, and some Catholic therapists don’t actually know psychology or don’t truly practice Catholicism. Parents asking therapists questions before bringing a child in can help ensure both will be comfortable with that clinician and his or her philosophy of therapy.

In Mullen’s experience, Catholic clients sometimes want to integrate prayer into their sessions. They like working with a Catholic clinician who understands their thought process and doesn’t seek to distract them from the teachings of the Church.

“I think parents want direction, and I think that’s where the Church comes into play. The Church often needs to be part of that conversation, in their homilies, in teaching the Gospel to their parishioners,” Mullen said. “The Church has a priority to create healthy families, and healthy families create healthy children.”

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