February 23, 2021
Addressing Youth Mental Health Crises to Prevent Substance Misuse

Do the words irritable, anxious, or clingy accurately describe your child’s feelings lately? If so, they’re not alone. The pandemic has worsened the child mental health crisis and parents everywhere are struggling to help their children. In fact, between April and October of 2020, mental health emergency room visits increased by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and by 31% for children ages 12 to 17.

Because children with mental health disorders are more likely to abuse drugs, it’s important to address mental health issues as they surface. We recently sat down with Dr. Elizabeth Harris, a child psychologist at University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio, to learn more about how children are being impacted by the pandemic, and how children of color, in particular, are facing unique stressors.

What have you observed in youth since the onset of COVID-19?

It’s interesting because when the stay-at-home order was first implemented there was a mix of emotions for the kids. Initially, not going to school felt like a vacation and was a little exciting yet scary for them. But as time went on, kids were expecting to get back into their routines and functions. That didn’t happen though and that’s when the anxiety started to increase, especially because the things they typically looked to for coping were no longer available.

Kids with a previous history of mental illness began having their symptoms return, and kids with no history of mental illness began to experience new feelings of anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, many of these children didn’t know how to address it since they’d never had those feelings before. Red flags for mental health may include low mood, fear, depression.  It’s important to address these symptoms because if they go unchecked, a young person may cope in unhealthy ways.

What happens when youth don’t know how to respond to these new stressors?

When youth don’t know how to respond to these stressors they lean on their own devices and sometimes those coping mechanisms are good and other times they’re not. One of the worse circumstances is the use of substances. Oftentimes, kids have no idea what the substances will make them feel like and what the consequences may be. They just want to feel better in a given moment. Their brains aren’t fully developed, so they tend to make impulsive decisions. They aren’t seeing that there are consequences for their actions, they just think “Oh, that can’t happen to me.”

What are some of the unique stressors facing children of color right now? 

In addition to being at an increased risk of getting COVID-19, children of color are impacted by what they’re experiencing with our country’s civil unrest. With the recent shootings of Black men and women, Black youth are seeing that there’s a possibility that their lives could be cut short even if they are not at fault. That can be extremely anxiety-provoking. Many of these kids are getting involved in protests, but even that can be a source of anxiety because it brings a heightened awareness of how people are treated differently based upon their skin color.

Can cultural barriers prevent minority youth from seeking help? 

Sometimes cultural barriers prevent people from knowing what it is they’re feeling or dealing with. When people understand mental health, they can acknowledge it and treat it appropriately. The stigma around mental health prevents many Black youth from addressing mental health issues appropriately. They may have a history of mental health illness that they aren’t aware of. Also, there’s a history of mental health misdiagnosis of minorities, which can make them distrustful of clinicians. 

How can we support youth and minority youth during these times?

Let kids talk about how they’re feeling without judgment. Listen, acknowledge and provide healthy ways to cope such as exercising, journaling, meditating, connecting with friends and watching something funny on TV. Kids look to adults on how to navigate life, and the more tools we give them the better equipped they will be.

When it comes to children of color, oftentimes they keep thoughts to themselves and feel that they have to deal with them alone. As both adults and peers, it’s important to encourage them to voice their experiences and let them express their thoughts without judgment. Non-minorities shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and let them know if they weren’t aware of the injustices. Non-minorities should also verbalize that they are an ally. When I speak to youth, I ask them to express the good things going on in their lives. I also emphasize that they have the power to make change in their lives.

Do you find that there are certain assumptions people in the Black community have regarding opioid addiction?

Oftentimes, Black people think opioid addiction isn’t their battle. They think opioid addiction is specific to low-income white people. The reality is opioids are growing in popularity and it is our problem. Our community needs to be more aware of the substances that are out there and educate them about safe use and disposal methods. We need to talk to our kids about opioids. The more we educate them, the better equipped they will be.

Dr. Harris is a member of the Ohio Psychological Association, an active member of the Opioid Alliance. She also serves as the liaison to the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi).