Opinion: I’m a Doctor. The Kids I’m Seeing Need to Be Back in School

The shutdown of schools and extracurricular activities due to COVID-19 has led to a spike in children with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, says Dr. Abelowitz. Photo by Antonio Guillem/iStock.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, we’ve seen impacts in almost every aspect of our lives. Arguably one of the most detrimental effects is the rapidly declining mental health of children. With the ongoing closures of schools, playgrounds, sports and other extracurriculars, children are missing out on large pieces of their development.

As a result, I’m seeing a spike in children with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideations in my practice. The current state of children’s mental health is concerning not only for the near future, but also for the long-term effects it may have on this generation and society as a whole.

Unfortunately, low-income and special needs students are at even higher risk of experiencing the physical and mental impacts of school closures. Schools provide essential services for children, whether it be a free meal for a child from a low-income household, or extra help from teachers for special needs students. Without these services, these children may not be able to get a proper meal, meaning they won’t get their necessary daily caloric intake. The lack of these services only widens the economic gap between students.

Both as a pediatrician and parent of young children, I believe that the best way to mitigate the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic on children of all socioeconomic statuses and demographics, is to open schools as safely as possible. This means social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, and following the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for remaining safe.

If you have school-aged children, it’s important to be mindful of their mental health. Try to engage in as many activities as you safely can, to help compensate for the lack of in-person school. Be aware of the potential mental health effects of pandemic isolation and symptoms of distress. Watch out for possible indicators of mental health issues, such as changes in sleep, weight fluctuations, emotional outbursts or self-harming behavior. If you notice anything of concern, reach out to your health care provider. 

Keeping children happy and healthy is of the utmost importance, especially now. To do this, we must reopen schools in a safe way. 

Dr. Steven Abelowitz is the medical director and president of Coastal Kids Pediatric Medical Group in Newport Beach, Laguna Niguel, Ladera Ranch and Irvine.

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