A St. Mary’s Healthcare pediatrician is finding the mental impact of the COVID crisis has been more pronounced on her young patients than the physical impact.
Very few children are actually getting sickened, said Dr. Mahvash Majeed, but many are showing some emotional trauma from the situation around them.
“It became more apparent when I started noticing there was some kids and teenagers that started to screen for depression,” she said. “These were kids who were always happy and never had a problem. Most of these kids talk about the pandemic bringing their mood down.”
The individual circumstances vary, but common themes include a sense of isolation from their peers, a fear of infection and a worry that their parents will get sick or lose their jobs.
A small percentage of children have enjoyed staying home, often because of pre-existing social phobias, but they’re the exception, Majeed said.
“I think everyone’s taking a hit but children are more prone because they are less equipped,” she said. “They’re witnessing this global health crisis and their sense of security is eroded.”
Majeed graduated from medical school in 2010 and completed her residency in 2013, at a time when the pediatric medical community was already expanding the role of pediatricians to take a greater role in monitoring the mental well-being of their patients, rather than just referring them to other specialists.
She has had some subsequent training in child psychology and uses it routinely.
Majeed wouldn’t attempt an intervention in severe situations, such as suicidal thoughts — the Children’s Mental Health Clinic is right upstairs from her office and better-suited for crisis situations.
But she regularly sits down with patients and/or parents to counsel on non-crisis problems such as depression. Mental health is as much a part of her practice as allergies and digestive problems.
“We’re not just shot-givers!” Majeed said.
The goal is to treat the whole child, rather than just their eczema or reflux.
“The less I see it, the more I want to refer it, the more I see it, the more I want to handle it,” Majeed said as a rule of thumb. “Unfortunately mental health is something we see a lot.”
COVID infected nearly 20 million Americans and killed more than 340,000 in 2020. Beyond the physical impact, there has been a widely recognized psychological impact that has included frustration, depression or even anger. It could be called a secondary pandemic, Majeed said, and it can be worse for children than adults because children’s minds are still developing.
“This issue is a trauma, was a trauma, will continue to be a trauma,” she said. “We still talk about the Spanish flu, the polio epidemic. Especially with kids, this is a really delicate time in their minds.”
Some youngsters will bounce right back when the COVID crisis ends, happy for the return to normal.
“We have to be aware of the ones who don’t. There will be a subset of them that will have a new social phobia,” Majeed said. “We don’t know, that could last for years.”
There are things parents and children can do to reduce the potential impact, she said.
- Parents can watch kids for signs of boredom, stress or anxiety, or come right out and ask them how they’re doing.
- Parents can give children a new role in the household, such as a particular cleaning or cooking task, to reduce stressors and boost self-esteem.
- Kids can set up a virtual study circle or something safe in-person to retain contact with friends and peers.
- Kids can retain motivation with a good routine that includes something other than schoolwork to look forward to.
- Kids can learn or get better at something of interest, such as art, dance or cooking.
“We try to make the best out of being at home,” said Majeed, who meets not just with children to discuss these issues but with their parents, sometimes without their children present.
“That’s the beauty of pediatrics — we’re very engaged with parents,” she said. “The more you communicate, the more you realize you’re not alone in this.”