Local psychiatists have seen an increase in depression and anxiety in young children during the pandemic.
Dr. Muhammad Saad, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center of the Permian Basin, said in his practice he has observed a trend of more of young children coping with depression, anxiety and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
He sees patients who are 17 and younger. The youngest he has seen are 4 and 5 years old.
Saad noted that information from teachers and those who are living with the child is very useful in making a diagnosis.
He added that the rise in anxiety and depression he has seen comes when youngsters were going back to school after having been out for such an extended period.
“That was also a very big change for them. … Now after a year and a half, they have to go back to school. Some of them are excited, but a lot of them are real anxious and the younger children struggle to expressing themselves in words …,” Saad said.
Younger children may have a difficult time expressing themselves and their feelings may manifest in the form of irritability, abdominal pain, headaches.
Saad said children basically copy how their parents react in difficult situations.
“If their parents are loud and anxious and they feel sad, … when the children are exposed to the same trauma or a different challenge in their lives, they have the same kind of behavior,” Saad added.
There is a wide range of factors that can play into mental health issues from biological to drugs, birth complications, neglect and abuse, among other things.
If someone had harsh conditions growing up, they can develop anxiety and depression or another mental health condition more quickly and have a hard time getting to a normal baseline level. But some children never get back to baseline, he said.
For younger children that are 7 or 8 years old, Saad said parents will see a difference in their child. For example, if their child liked to play outside and was social, the change might be locking themselves in their room and spending too much time playing video games.
There may also be a change in eating habits and they may be depressed or irritable or feel sad and worthless.
Dr. Bobby Jain, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Texas Tech, said anxiety symptoms usually vary with age.
“Very young children with show what we call somatic symptoms including physical symptoms — aches and pain, crying excessively, clinging to the parents, wanting to be around parents … Going to school, going to social occasions, they’ll have trouble adapting to those things …,” Jain said.
“Older children, you see predominance of physical symptoms and some behavior changes so physical symptoms would be mostly belly pain, headaches. Sometimes they may complain of chest pain, or maybe complaining about change in the bowel habits. But they may resist doing something that they were comfortable doing before when anxiety peaks. Older children, of course, are able to communicate it. Adolescent kids may show some behavior problems; some oppositional behavior; some irritability; some aggressive behavior,” Jain said.
They may also gravitate toward vaping, marijuana use, skipping school sexual activity, he said.
Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General sent out a report on mental health since the pandemic which found that there has been a 40 percent increase in uncompleted suicide attempts in young girls during the pandemic compared to a 25 percent increase in suicide attempts in young boys.
“So you can see that this pandemic has been extremely stressful on the younger population; the most vulnerable probably and partly because they’re not able to explain,” Jain said.
Saad added that children with disabilities also suffered during the pandemic. Online learning may not be suitable for them.
“… So they have suffered a lot, too, in terms of their academic performance and in terms of their anxiety and depression,” Saad said.
If they have intellectual disabilities, they can have a hard time expressing themselves.
“And parents are not prepared for the challenges, because no one was prepared. They were playing the role of a parent, but now they are playing the role of parent and teacher,” he said.
Some youth may also have a hard time adjusting to being around people again.
“… Some kids were very happy online after being bullied in school, or being traumatized in different ways. Home was a very comfortable environment for them to learn. …,” Saad said.