The Kids are Not Alright

Anxiety, Depression and Racism while Sheltering-in-Place

By Lishaun Francis

June 23, 2020

The shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19 ignited widespread alarm, anxiety and depression for adults concerned about interrupting their daily routines, falling ill and maintaining their economic stability. Simultaneously, children and youth were struggling with the same fears. School closures, disconnection from friends and an abrupt stop to community resources put additional strain on an already tenuous hold on mental wellness for many young people. In fact, children struggled with their mental health prior to COVID-19. Between 2015 and 2017, an estimated 16 percent of California’s 9th and 11th graders considered attempting suicide in the previous year,[1] and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 31.5 percent of high school students nationwide “experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.”  While most youth worry about issues like mass shootings and climate change, youth of color are disproportionately more stressed about housing stability, personal debt and food insecurity than their white counterparts; concerns that have only been exacerbated for families due to the coronavirus.

This “layering on” of additional, ongoing stress due to the impacts of structural racism deserves more inquiry. For example, widespread misinformation and fearmongering about coronavirus caused a significant increase in overtly racist and xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (API). Some students reported disturbing in-school experiences of assault, bullying, and isolation, based solely on the mistaken belief that being Asian made them responsible for the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to being hurtful, these incidents also have a lasting impact on the psyche of API students as racist experiences raise stress levels and contribute to the anxiety and depression of youth. While school closures may have put a stop to the on-campus incidents, many are still anxious about their safety within communities while having limited resources to get support for anxiety and depression.

Community-wide trauma is also compounding the impact of COVID-19 on Black children. In the last month, the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, and the corresponding public outcry have heightened concerns about what it means to shelter-in-place while experiencing community trauma. As the video of George Floyd’s murder circulated across every news channel and social media platform, experts raised the alarm at the danger these images could pose to mental health. While few could view the video and not be affected, Black Americans reported a significant spike in feelings of anxiety and depression after the video was made public, as many described the ability to “see themselves” in George Floyd. While police brutality in the Black and brown community is not new, the murders of Floyd and Taylor were national reminders of the possibility of imminent death at the hands of police, creating a confluence of stress and depression. Researchers have found that Black adolescent males who are exposed to nationally publicized cases of police killings through the media have serious concern for their personal safety and mortality in the presence of police. In addition, Black males’ exposure to police violence correlated to higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than for any other demographic group.

Support during these stressful events could ordinarily be found through formal channels like mental health services at schools, and less formal channels like faith-based organizations, community centers, and connections with family and friends. However, the public health emergency of COVID-19 has compounded the experience of community trauma with children and youth experiencing isolation and an inability to access resources and supports.

In response, Children Now is pushing the state to center children and youth as it explores how to better support the mental health of Californians.

Specific areas that state policymakers should consider so that families, schools, and communities can meet the mental health needs of children include:

  • Expand the child-serving health workforce to include more community health workers, promotoras, indigenous healers, and peer-to-peer supporters to address the health needs of children and families;
  • Support school staff with youth mental health first aid training to equip them to identify, de-escalate, and refer students for supports and services;
  • Encourage school-county partnerships to better provide mental health supports for students;
  • Encourage the review of school policies and practices that may have negative impacts on mental health, like police on campus;
  • Provide Medi-Cal reimbursement and technical assistance regarding telehealth counseling services and policies for schools; and
  • Collect more robust data on the mental health needs of Native American children and youth and address their concerns.

[1] Kids Data.