Mental health under COVID-19: The impact of social distancing & school closures on children, teens

As instructed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, all K-12 schools within the state of Michigan have temporarily shut their doors until Monday April 13, as a result of the Coronavirus’ rampant spread.

Yet, as the Executive Director of Engaged Outreach, a mental health nonprofit, I am also concerned regarding the mental health impact social distancing will have on Michigan’s youth. 

Though a suspension of activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life was taken by our government as a precaution for our kids, families and public health, there is fear for the mental impact and anxiety that could potentially follow may leave many children feeling trapped and overwhelmed. 

Talk about it

As a nonprofit focused on taking a proactive approach to improving the mental health of young people, we understand the mental impact that comes with a new wave of uncertainty and uncontrollable external variables. Students have seen some of the largest impact, but it’s important for parents and mentors to encourage them to respond to these issues and engage positively with their new situation.

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Since social distancing has become the new “normal” for our youth, I have been thinking about the following strategies for encouraging positive mental health. 

One of the best ways to help create stability for your child is to talk about all the things that are going on. Encourage your child to express their feelings through whatever medium is necessary. It may not be verbal expression, and that’s okay. Giving them an outlet to express themselves and feel in control will help them release any anxiety they may feel.

According to the Center for Disease Control, children and teens respond similarly to the way adults around them do. This means guardians can directly help their young people by changing the narrative and using positive verbiage when referencing the pandemic. 

Avoid speaking out of fear or projecting your anxiety onto your kids. Our youth can pick up on the energy you give off, so it’s important to try to remain calm to avoid creating additional anxiety for them. Kids feel the weight of the situation, and to give them the best headspace possible, it’s important to provide solutions rather than additional stresses.

Stay consistent

As humans, we are creatures of habit. We often rely on a schedule to maintain balance and keep a sense of control in our day-to-day lives. 

During this time, try to find a balance between fun and structure. While it may seem like a vacation, keeping a routine and implementing chores for your child can be extremely helpful for their mental stability.

Continue to keep this time positive and actively look for different ways for kids to spend their time.

Encouraging family game nights, family dinners and even chores can help to keep things as normal as possible. Having your children help around the house can not only alleviate parents of some stress, but it can preoccupy a child’s time, and give everyone a sense of purpose.

Staying active and using this time as a mental escape is another way to reduce the mental strain brought on by COVID-19, according to US News. 

Anything you can do that will help to continue on a routine will be helpful for a child’s mental health. The more you let them express their emotions in a healthy way, the better they will feel.

Take mental breaks

There are a lot of stories and uncertainties circulating about COVID-19, and social media can amplify the anxiety. Health care professionals highly encourage finding a time to disconnect.

Try to implement a screen-less period with your family, even if it’s just as you eat dinner. Use this time as a mental break from the news and strive to talk about other subjects that bring thoughts of peace, courage, health, and hope.

According to the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth Survey, 37.3% of teenagers across Michigan display symptoms of depression.  

There are ways that we all can help the young people in our lives during this time, by taking proactive measures.  They need to manage their stress and anxiety in order to have a positive mental wellbeing, and each adult in their life has the ability to influence and help them by providing positive examples and engagement.

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Matthew Anderson is the executive director for Engaged Outreach, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people improve their mental health. Anderson holds a Master of Science in Conflict Management and a Master of Business Administration. He has been recognized with honors from the International Business Awards and Michigan State University; is a member of Mensa, the international high IQ society; sits on boards at Michigan State University and the Small Business Association of Michigan; and is a Gubernatorial Appointee to the Michigan Board of Respiratory Care. Anderson has numerous published articles and is in the process of authoring a book that advocates for collaboration with others in spite of differences in moral opinion. He also has been recognized by Dale Carnegie as their No. 1 Corporate Trainer in the World for his work developing leaders in Fortune 400 companies.

Engaged Outreach is a statewide nonprofit focused on taking a proactive approach to improving the mental health of young people. We partner with school districts throughout the state and deliver a mental health improvement program, the My L.I.F.E. Program (Leadership, Intention, Focus, Enthusiasm), in-seat in high schools.  The My L.I.F.E. Program outcomes give kids resilence, grit, and a sense of agency; teaches them how to collaborate with peers and adults; to communicate to feel heard; to lead and influence themselves and their peers to make smart choices; and to have the tools to deal with stress and anxiety, and thrive through adversity.
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