More kids experiencing mental health problems, weight gain due to pandemic; how you can help them

SPOKANE, Wash. – The pandemic is causing a crisis in children’s mental health and the rest of their well-being. It’s a problem we could be dealing with for years to come.

Parents want their kids to be healthy, but sometimes, they don’t know what’s going on unless they talk to their kids.

It’s been a year like no other, and pediatricians are seeing the effects of the pandemic, too.

Dr. Nalini Gupta, a general pediatrician with Providence, says she’s seen more anxiety and depression in her patients that come in.

“I have prescribed more medication for anxiety and depression in the last year than I have over several years,” she said.

Providence’s Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital has actually seen a 73% increase in children mental health visits in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the health system and Governor Jay Inslee’s proclamation.

“The abrupt withdrawal from school and social life, hanging out with their friends – it’s been really big on them,” said Katherine Harris, a licensed social worker with Providence.

Many kids have been back in class for the last several months, but there are other issues they’re facing.

Gupta has seen fewer kids coming in and some families haven’t been back for a regular checkup in a year and a half. When kids do come back for an appointment, Gupta found it’s more than just a regular checkup.

“It’s never a routine well visit because a lot of concerns would’ve been discussed at individual visits,” she said. “What we find is it’s a well visit plus anxiety, plus depression, plus eczema got worse.”

Mental health is not the only issue that keeps coming up. Gupta has noticed a lot more weight gain in her patients, too. There was no routine during virtual and hybrid learning.

“They’ve all had a dramatic increase in weight. Just over the last year, when I talk to parents and children, it’s just been that there’s no structure, there’s no structure for school, no structure for sleep. There’s easy access for food,” Gupta said.

That weight gain in some kids also made them feel anxious in coming back to class when that time came, Harris added.

In addition to all that, Gupta is worried about the kids who haven’t come in for routine checkups, afraid they may be falling behind developmentally. If parents aren’t checking their children’s milestones or taking them in to see professionals, there could be long-lasting effects.

Kids who may have autism – but is not spotted early enough – could fall even further behind as they grow up.

“I think over this year and the next, once vaccines are becoming more routine, we’re probably going to see a lot more issues,” Gupta said. “Some of these issues are going to have a very long term impact.”

So, what can be done now to help kids?

Parents should talk to them and actually listen to what they’re going through. Kids can feel stressed when parents feel that, too.

“The mental health effects will persist, but as adults around them, we can watch our own reactions and just show them how you’re coping and they learn from us,” Gupta said.

As for weight gain, Gupta suggests parents establish a routine. Make plans to spend more time outside this summer and take in the fresh air.

Also remember that kids are resilient and things will get better.

If parents still feel concerned, check in with pediatricians to see what can be done.

READ: 4 things to do this summer to get kids ready for school this fall