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You can’t help but worry about the COVID generation – podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

There are so many things I took for granted when I was young: that my family would be there, school was a refuge and source of a social life outside the home, and the rituals and rites of youth in Southern California would be there for me when the time came, just as they were for my forebears.

When I think on what my life would look like today with just one of those formative experiences  removed, it’s unimaginable.

What if they all turned to dust?

That’s what so many of our kids have experienced these past two terrible years, as COVID hijacked their childhoods.

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Most every family has lost someone. We all know some, or many, among the 969,114 COVID deaths recorded in the United States since March 2020.

Most kids missed nearly two years of in-person instruction. For some of them, the much anticipated rituals — proms, graduations, award banquets, academic and extra-curricular “career” capping events — are gone forever.

Friend groups they once leaned into to bear the sometimes emotionally brutal middle school years disintegrated.

Worst of all, kids on the cusp of medicating themselves in order to endure the pressure gave in, and dove into the deep end. Most tragically, some are gone now, official victims of mostly fentanyl overdoses. Digging deeper though, those overdose deaths are casualties of the pandemic as well.

All this doom isn’t just hyperbole from this alarmed dad of four, with two kids still in Claremont schools.

Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics paint a bracingly grim picture: emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents increased by 31% in 2020 over the previous year’s totals. Even more alarming is that in February and March 2020, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher among girls ages 12 to 17 than during the same period in 2019.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, noting “The pandemic has struck at the safety and stability of families,” and advocating for a host of legislative, regulatory and societal changes to address the morass.

What’s happening here?

“We just now are seeing the beginning of what’s to come with student mental health,” Claremont Unified School District Mental Health Coordinator Lisa Banks-Toma told me.

And since CUSD students returned from their winter break on January 3, the need has skyrocketed.

“That goes all the way through the entire district: K, even pre-K, to twelfth grade,” she said.

I’ve seen all this for myself. The very fabric of childhood broke down over these past two years. Many kids were in emotional freefall, with no clear indication as to when they’d return to a semblance of normal.

Yes, students are back in class now. But those 18 months or so of trauma are just now manifesting, and it’s crashing the system.

“It almost seemed to me like students had to get comfortable again being on campus, and get comfortable with all their adults again, before we could get to that genuine place of, ‘I need help.’” Banks-Toma said.

I know firsthand that mental health professionals are inundated. Young people — my kids among them — are waiting weeks or months to see a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.

My ex and I have good health insurance through Kaiser. It’s served us well on the medical side as our kids have made their way through typical stuff like broken bones and ear infections. But we are in a constant state of all-hands-on-deck scramble to try to match our fully insured kids with mental health professionals.

It’s a terrible confluence of an unforeseen, tragically unplanned for global event swamping our resources. And it’s had real-life consequences. For any kid in crisis, it’s just not enough.

Claremont Unified School District has done its level best.

It is now offering new afterschool groups at Claremont High: one on depression and grief, another on stress and anxiety, and a third, “seeking safety,” which deals with substance abuse. So far despite its outreach to students, they haven’t yet caught on in large numbers. Groups are also taking place during the school day on depression, anxiety and LGBTQI support. And there’s hope that a new program in conjunction with Baldy View ROP bringing mental health first aid to CUSD students will help stem the tide.

But resources are stretched. And CHS, with its well-intended and potentially valuable new programs, is but one of 10 CUSD campuses.

Anxiety is the number one concern across the district, followed by depression, Banks-Toma said.

“And then we go on from there. There’s been a lot of grief that’s happened as a result of this pandemic,” she said. “Everyone’s dealing with loss in their families, which has been very difficult. What else? Trauma. There’s just so many different things.”

The district has a gang of mental health service interns, some post-associate level and some post-master’s level interns, and 15 trainees from university programs. Each of the district’s 10 schools has an assigned school psychologist.

And they’re all very, very busy, Banks-Toma said.

But the crush of mental health referrals is such that CUSD has not had time to compile the numbers to quantify the increase.

“I will tell you that we’ve never had the numbers we’ve had,” Banks-Toma said. “I’m just seeing the increase everywhere in the district.”

I asked Banks-Toma, a mother of two grown adult children, if she worried about what school-aged kids are going through. She sighed, seemingly from the weight of it all, and paused.

“You know, I am really concerned about how kids are doing,” she said. “I think for me what I continue to try to focus on is just really providing that support. And as long as the district is responding and that we can basically still provide the support we need to be providing, I guess that gives me hope and I’m just grateful for that.

“But, I am concerned. And it makes me wonder: have we seen the worst of it? Every day is kind of like, what’s going to happen today?”

Yeah. What’s next for these kids, for my kids? I fear for the long-term.

Am I overreacting? Will this terrible trauma steel them against adulthood’s unavoidable heartbreaks and challenges? Maybe.

But when I think about their futures, I worry. I guess every parent since forever has worried, but this COVID worry feels unique in our modern history.

World War II must have put parents in a similarly dark place. But COVID has already doubled that awful war’s U.S. death toll, and before it’s done it might just triple or quadruple it.

In that light, it doesn’t seem indulgent to worry, to mourn for those lost experiences and the effect all that missing data will have on this COVID generation’s relationships, their careers, and eventually, on their own kids.

To quote one of my daughters’ favorite authors, John Green, from his 2012 YA hit, “The Fault in Our Stars”: “Don’t worry. Worry is useless. I worried anyway.”

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