(WEHT) – The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live our lives, and it’s also forced many schools to turn to virtual learning. But how is this affecting the mental health of students? Eyewitness News Noah Alatza was joined by pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Thomas to talk about how students are dealing with a very different school year.
NOAH: So let’s get right into it. The pandemic has changed normal routines for children learning from home. So how does this affect a child’s mental health and their ability to learn?
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas: Yes, that’s a great question. First of all, the important thing to know is that parents can set the tone for their children. And this is a challenging time for us as parents as well. So it’s important for parents to know that we set the tone, so however we feel is how it’s gonna reflect on our kids, many times. So it’s important for us to stay positive, and set a good routine for what’s going to happen, whether the child is in virtual school, or whether they’re going to be sent to school. There are many ways that it can affect a child’s mental health, because things have changed so much. when they left before spring break, They were with their friends, they were not wearing masks. But now that they’re going to school with masks on with social distancing, they have to see things a lot differently. So it’s very important that we can prep our children into knowing what to expect when they’re returning to school, encouraging them to wear their masks, keeping social distance waving at their friends. But if they’re staying home for virtual school, it’s important that a routine is set so that it keeps things going smoothly. And I think for mental health with children, a lot of things that happen is when things are out of routine, it affects them mentally. So having open honest conversations about what changes are happening, why they’re changing, so they’re not influenced by what their friends are saying or what they’re seeing on social media, that we as parents are being open and honest about why these changes have to happen. Open communication is key.
NOAH: And Dr. Thomas, I know a lot of kids probably miss their friends at school, but how can kids still get some of that social interaction?
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas: Yes, I think having the media is very important and limiting that time on there. But allowing children to have certain time with their friends, being able to see them via video, being able to see grandparents, people that they can’t see very often during this time, setting standards. And being able to do those with those kids is very important over social media and over video. Now the other thing in terms of being close in person is being careful about what social events that people are choosing to go to only in those areas that have been cleared for them to be able to be in that space. But at this point, we really have to be still very careful about being very close to our friends, especially in school. So keeping that social distance is very important but having activities where they can are able to do that in a very controlled environment.
NOAH: And Dr. Thomas, are you seeing more children come in with mental health issues right now?
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas: during the pandemic, and during the thick of things we were seeing, especially teenagers, that were having a difficult time coping through with this situation, because teenagers are very social. So we did see a lot of people that were becoming more anxious, becoming fearful that they may get the virus. So we did encourage them to be able to talk things out with their family members, even keep relationships with their friends over text and over video. And being able to do that was very important. So yes, we did see a rise. But we did encourage those kids to be able to have those open lines of communication, and even teaching parents that they need to look out for things in their kids, they can see changes, like changes in their routine if they’re normally don’t like certain activities, and they’re drawing away from it. Or if they’re having irritability or changes in mood. Those are times to reach out to their pediatrician to get some further help if needed.
NOAH: And how can those parents help children deal with the trauma of family members or friends who maybe do have COVID-19?
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas: That’s a great question because a lot of our kids are facing that situation. First of all, asking them an open ended questions, especially with your older kids and your teenagers, asking them how do you feel about so and so having the virus what does that mean for you? Because many times kids think that they’re about to get the virus as well, but reassuring them is very, very important. Giving them updates, I think is very important as well, it’s important to let them know, okay, this so and so got the virus that they’re doing well, they’re doing better. And what we’re seeing is that most people are improving. And if there’s situations when that’s not the case, being open and honest with them, and letting them know that they’re doing everything they can to be as safe as possible, and you as a parent are helping them to do that by following the general guidelines of hand washing hand sanitizing, masks and social distancing.
NOAH: And Dr. Thomas, I know you kind of touched on this a little bit earlier on, but if a child is struggling, what are some of those biggest signs that parents really need to look out for?
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas: Yes, changes in their mood, changes in their behavior, loss of interest, there changes in their sleep patterns, or even changes in eating when you start to see your child doing things out of the norm for themselves. That’s when you start to see red flags, kids not getting up in the mornings, like they should be sleeping in for a long, long periods of time. You know, sometimes it’s normal for teenagers, but when they are sleeping for long periods of time, they don’t have interest in getting out of bed. They’re more irritable, they’re more Moody, or even changes in their eating habits. That’s when you start to think to yourself, okay, is there something that we need to talk about, I would first open up those lines of communication, talk to them. And then of course, if things aren’t working out that way, reach out to their pediatrician. The other thing that I do want to mention with teenagers that we don’t ever want to forget is if you see they’re saying things about suicide or not wanting to live, it’s very important that those parents reach out to the National suicide prevention hotline. And that number, I wanted to mention that it’s one 800 273 ta lk. So it’s very important that parents have that resource as well.
NOAH: A lot of helpful insight as we all try and navigate this pandemic. Dr. Elizabeth Thomas, thank you so much for your time tonight. We appreciate it.
Dr. Elizabeth Thomas: Thank you so much.
(This story was originally published on Sept. 19, 2020)