Spring, Breaking: Kids, Mental Health, and the Darker Side of Being Home Together
How is your pandemic parenting going? "The Faculty Parent" series chronicles the highs and lows of juggling parenting, teaching, research, and writing in uncertain times.
Perhaps you are one of those intrepid parents who bundles kids into cars or planes, and hoists sail for exciting destinations during spring break each year. Perhaps you even outwitted the pandemic by trundling in an RV to a campground, avoiding large crowds, mass transit, and shared bathrooms altogether. If so, good on you and then some. You may, however, have spent your spring break the way I spent it: holed up with, guess who?, those same cherubic little monsters who have been here all through this long weird year. We did come up with a few small adventures that were well worth the trip. We went to the nursery and bought some flowers, which we hung from side of the deck. We made a deep-dish pizza from scratch (or “out of scratch,” as our five-year old says) or at least we tried to make one; in the end we ordered in. We even braved the clothing store with our matching masks on, forgetting that the five-year-old, who lived in the city pre-pandemic and went a whole lot of nowhere during the pandemic, had never actually had a full-on Old Navy experience. She quickly approached sheer frenzy at the sight of racks upon racks of spring-themed sparkle jelly shoes and rainbow unicorn dresses. We left relatively unscathed only because we threatened that we would never return if she didn’t put down the armfuls of fluffy bunny socks.
For some, spring break means gearing up for a hard push of grading, research, and writing, catching up on things past due. For those with full time caregiving responsibilities, spring break means doing a whole lot less of those things than even in a “regular” week (that’s assuming you have access to any childcare at all). But this year spring break was not just a “break” filled with even more responsibilities than usual. In fact, it was all about breaking.
Our happy-go-lucky five-year-old has not been so happy these past few months. Despite our efforts to find a school where she could attend in person, and our efforts to make sure she was surrounded by extended family to shower her with love and attention, the combination of regular kid anxiety and unlimited unknown pandemic-related factors had culminated in something that looked a lot like depression. She started saying, regularly and with conviction, things like “I’m a terrible person,” “I’m a terrible daughter,” “I don’t deserve any dessert,” “Nobody likes me,” “I’m not a good artist,” “I’m not smart,” and on and on and on. So, our spring break was spent, in large part, launching a plan to refocus attention on a kid who was clearly crying out for…something. Not knowing what’s really wrong or how best to help has been perhaps the worst part of this worrying.
In our case, at least for now, things seem to have stabilized at bit. For others, maybe for you and yours, things are not so stable. We’ve heard a lot about mental illness, depression, and suicide in adults in the news. We’ve heard about how isolation, job loss, financial worries, and the constant threat of infection has exacerbated existing mental illness or triggered new symptoms, and perhaps you’ve experienced these painful impacts in your own life or in the lives of loved ones. I nearly lost an extended family member to suicide just before the winter. Receiving a suicide note and calling the police is one experience I never want to repeat. In our roles as faculty members, we know a great deal about how students are suffering, and about the added burden on BIPOC, LGBTQ+, low-income, and undocumented students. We’ve been the ones to gently direct students to the mental health and other resources they most need at this time.
We’ve heard a bit less about how these same stressors have affected children, whose individual situations vary greatly depending on their age and other factors, including their parents’ responsibilities, siblings’ lives, access to schooling, level of interaction with other children, their geographical location, living accommodations, access to spaces for play and expression, and (crucially) their access to medical and mental health resources. This constellation of variables has meant, for some families, kids with serious depression and anxiety, kids with suicidal ideation, kids who make suicide attempts; in short, kids pushed to their breaking points. And if the move from in-person to virtual schooling wasn’t hard enough (against the backdrop of racial reckoning and a rising Covid toll) now the transition back to the classroom is bringing new challenges for many. This complex, multi-phased crisis is made more challenging for families because it can be difficult to find and access mental health supports specifically designed for children even at the best of times.
Today I am following (and sharing here) the good advice of a friend and faculty colleague whose ten-year-old recently survived a suicide attempt (yes, ten years old). Reach out now, my friend advised, to your pediatrician and parent network to find highly recommended pediatric mental health professionals—psychologists, psychiatrists, support groups—in your area and to learn about costs, wait times, and whether they are covered by your insurance. Find out which hospitals in your area provide in-patient care for children facing mental health issues. Put these names and numbers in your contacts and save them for a rainy day, or a rainy pandemic. Keep them handy so that if you find that things have taken a turn for the worse you will have the information you need to get reliable help quickly. And remember this, you are not alone. Parenting, kids, and mental health may not be the top story on the nightly news, but it’s the top story in every household. I see you, and I share your concerns.
Patricia Akhimie is a 2020-2021 Chancellor’s Scholar-in-Residence with the P3 Collaboratory. She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where she teaches Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, and early modern women’s travel writing. She is also the mother of two kids, ages five and one. @pakhimie
Find a Therapist database – limit your search by age of client, insurance accepted, etc. (Psychology Today)
Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support (HealthyChildren.org)
How LGBTQ youth can cope with anxiety and stress during COVID-19 (The Trevor Project)
Cultivating Compassion & Collectivism: A Multi-Week Course to Facilitate Healing from Racial Trauma (NCFDD, available through Rutgers Newark’s institutional membership. Activate your free membership here)
Rutgers Newark COVID-19 Psychological and Wellness Support for Faculty Staff and their Families
Rutgers Health Family Support Line 1-855-652-6819 M-F 8am-4pm with after hours voicemail option.
Carter, Cathy. “Mental Health Resources Can Help Kids Cope with Pandemic Anxiety” WUSF Public Media (Apr 19, 2021)
Collins, Sarah. “Why Are Half of U.S. Kids with Mental Health Issues Not Getting Treatment?” Health Day News, WebMD (Mar 29, 2021)
Davis, Lisa Selin “Keep paying attention to your kids’ mental health in this pandemic” CNN.com (Feb 10, 2021)
Gaffney, Theresa. “Kids in the ER are waiting longer for mental health care” STAT (Apr 5, 2021)
Hill RM, Rufino K, Kurian S, Saxena J, Saxena K, Williams L. “Suicide ideation and attempts in a pediatric emergency department before and during COVID-19.” Pediatrics 147.3. (Mar 2021)
Morin, Amy. “5 ways parents can address their kids’ mental health fallout from the past year” NBCNews.com (Mar 30, 2021)
Petersen, Andrea. “Loneliness, Anxiety and Loss: The Covid Pandemic’s Terrible Toll on Kids” The Wall Street Journal (April 9, 2021)
Verlenden JV, Pampati S, Rasberry CN, et al. “Association of Children’s Mode of School Instruction with Child and Parent Experiences and Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic — COVID Experiences Survey, United States, October 8–November 13, 2020.” CDC. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2021; 70: 369–376.
Wood, Ada and Lauren Mascarenhas “Virtual school can be damaging to children’s mental health, CDC study says” CNN.com (Mar 26, 2021)
To stay in touch with other RU-N faculty parents, join the Rutgers Newark Faculty Parents email list. You can join any time by emailing email@example.com