By REBECCA LEININGER
In 2021, it feels a lot like we’re trying to put together the pieces of what used to be “normal” – returning to an everyday routine, visiting newly vaccinated relatives and stepping outside our carefully constructed COVID-19 bubbles. But the truth is: We’ll probably never be quite the same as we were before.
One of the most important lessons to emerge in the past 18 months is that it’s okay to say you’re not okay. Pressure to succeed – and be the best – comes from many different places: family, friends, work, coaches. This played out most recently on the global stage, as Simone Biles, considered the greatest gymnast of all time, pulled out of competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games to focus on her mental health.
As people of all ages grapple with the challenges of the last year, it’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, mental illness was on the rise in America. Nearly 52 million adults lived with some form of disorder in 2019, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But COVID-19 has brought that issue to the forefront ... especially for our children.
At their age, kids and teens are still developing a sense of what’s “normal,” making them more vulnerable to trauma when scary things happen. In the last year, many of America’s youth were separated from their friends and pulled out of the routine of school. Others lived with parents and caregivers who lost their jobs and faced financial uncertainty. All of these things – stressful even for adults – can significantly impact a child’s emotional and mental well-being.
Children express their needs differently from adults, and it can be hard to tell what behaviors – such as needing space, throwing tantrums, acting out – are a normal part of growing up or might be signs of a crisis. That’s why it’s so important to stay aware of warning signs.
Fortunately, there are resources that can help. Nonprofits like Embrace Families – the leading agency overseeing child welfare in Central Florida – have long advocated for increased training and treatment for mental health in youth and adults alike. In fact, out of the 500,000 American children in foster care, it’s estimated that 80% live with a serious mental health condition, as a result of abuse, neglect or the trauma of separation. Ensuring those kids and their families have access to mental health care is critical.
In 2018, Embrace Families was awarded a $375,000 federal grant to bring mental health awareness training to the broader Orlando community. One popular course we offer is Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA), which is available to law enforcement, educators, healthcare, and other medical providers who work or volunteer with adolescents on a regular basis.
The course focuses on identifying warning signs, distinguishing between regular “growing pains” and more serious conditions, and linking kids with resources and treatment. And it’s been successful: In the last year alone, more than 5,000 children were referred to mental health care resources as a result of the training.
“The training gives us the tools to shepherd people on their journey toward recovery and resilience,” says Catherine Galda of Catholic Charities of Central Florida, an instructor in the YMHFA program. “It makes us better connectors and better listeners to other human beings.”
Or, as another instructor put it, it builds an “open-door” model where anyone – at any age – can access the help they need. To learn more or sign up for YMHFA training, visit www.embracefamilies.org/mhat.
Although we’re often faced with dire statistics about mental health, the truth is that the future of treatment and therapy doesn’t have to be bleak. We continue to make progress, breaking down barriers that prevent people from seeking care and improving access to treatment. But for that progress to continue, we need to keep seeking solutions and starting conversations.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, it can be hard to ask for help. But now is the time to start putting the pieces back together. In the event of a crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 for counseling and resources around the clock.
Rebecca Leininger is vice president of Embrace Families Solutions, which manages the Mental Health Awareness Training grant and other programs dedicated to strengthening and supporting Central Florida families before they become overwhelmed by crisis.