Local Health Director’s View: As COVID will stay here, children’s mental health must be a priority

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This was only partially true.

Over the course of 2021, it became clear that COVID-19 will stay here. Public health recommendations will continue to adjust as the virus changes and it becomes endemic. We may have been a little over-optimistic about our ability to fight the evolution of a virus in the beginning. History should have taught us otherwise, given what we know about past pandemics.

We have seen a semblance of normalcy over the past year. We no longer have home stay orders or congregation size requirements, and we can celebrate holidays with family and friends while minimizing the risk of transmission. Since the beginning of the school year 2021-22, our children have had the opportunity to study full-time in person again.

We are far from the darker days of 2020, but we are still in the middle of the fight against COVID-19. From a public health perspective, we remain concerned about this burden of disease, as well as the secondary effects of the pandemic.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other health care professionals recently declared a national child and adolescent mental health emergency on the grounds that the stress of the pandemic had exacerbated an already dire situation. This is especially true for communities with already poor health outcomes. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, research shows that depression and anxiety symptoms doubled in teenagers during the pandemic, with 25% of teenagers now having depressive symptoms and 20% anxiety symptoms.

In school districts across St. Louis County, students who felt they had adults caring for them in their school, community, or home setting were two to three and a half times less likely to have symptoms of depression, according to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey. These resilience factors were shown to protect against poor mental health in pre-pandemic times, and we have no reason to believe that they don’t now.

Earlier this year, the St. Louis County Board approved the use of over $ 5 million of federal rescue plan funds to help school districts step up public outreach efforts for children who are at risk leaving school or dropping out of school. With these funds, 37 mentoring positions support around 1,000 students in the entire district. In addition, the board approved a public health position focusing on community-based suicide prevention initiatives.

Fortunately, 85% of the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey respondents identified at least five protective factors that could help increase their resilience. These protective factors include having a caring adult in their life, participating in social activities, feeling safe in their neighborhood, and having a positive identity.

Could 2022 be the year we restore our fragile social cohesion to support our children’s mental health and resilience? The pandemic has revealed differences in how we approach our individual health behaviors and our preferences for community health strategies. I am optimistic that in 2022 we will get over highlighting our differences and come together to focus on the mental wellbeing and resilience of our children and the community.

The COVID-19 virus will remain in one form or another. A child mental health emergency doesn’t have to stick with it. Let us all swear to work together to protect our children from these secondary effects.

Amy Westbrook is the director of the St. Louis County Public Health Department. She wrote this at the invitation of the News Tribune Opinion page.

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