Why we need to support youth mental wellness post-pandemic

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an annual reminder for all of us that we need to prioritize our mental health and wellness, and that there are resources available for those in need. But this year's reminder is different from any other; COVID 19 has shone a bright light on mental health, as no one has escaped feeling the impact and weight of the pandemic on our lives.

These last 14 months have been a difficult journey for most, as the pandemic disrupted all of the infrastructure that supported our lives before. We worked remotely, we became isolated from friends and loved ones for months on end, we lost jobs and income and we lost control of the ability to simply plan ahead for our future. Perhaps no one, though, has been more affected by this pandemic than our youth.

In an instant, our children went from busy days at school filled with friends and after-school activities to being alone at home behind a computer screen for hours on end, day after day. The impact of this sudden change amid months of isolation found more parents than ever reporting that their children were struggling with their mental health and wellness. This was made clear in a recent report that showed 46% of parents surveyed reported that their teenager had experienced a new or worsening mental health condition during the pandemic.

At NAMI Metro Suburban, where we serve individuals, families, and communities affected by mental illness in the western suburbs of Cook County, we've seen a steady increase in need for support and services throughout the pandemic for our youth. Nationally, mental health-related visits for children increased 24% for children ages five to 11, and 31% for children ages 12 to 17.

Recognizing that students would need access to mental health services during this time, we took our well known, evidence-based in-school program, "Ending the Silence," and made it virtual. This allowed us to connect directly with middle and high school students on mental wellness and how to recognize the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness, and on a platform they were comfortable using - their phones and computers.

The results from transitioning Ending the Silence to an online program surprised us: 1 in 29 students followed up after the program for additional resources or support, more than we had ever seen before. Certainly, this increase is partially due to the rise in mental health conditions our youth are facing, but we also believe something else is at play - having virtual resources available to students gave them a safe space in which to connect with these services, far from the hallways of school where you're often under the watchful eye of fellow students.

That's an important lesson for us to take with us into our post-pandemic future; for young people who may feel the pressures and stigma surrounding mental health more than adults, virtual resources provide a safe, private way to seek out the help they need.

Many of our students are already back in classrooms, and more will be in the fall as we continue our return to a pre-pandemic life. That doesn't mean the mental health challenges facing our youth will go away - it's estimated that 10% of all youth between the ages six and 17 experience a mental health disorder, and we need to continue to find ways to best serve them.

For NAMI Metro Suburban, that means continuing to offer these services both at school and virtually to help reduce the number of young people suffering in silence. To supplement school-based programming, we operate Support4U, where students in Oak Park, Riverside, Brookfield and Proviso Township can simply send a text message to receive help and receive an answer from a licensed clinician. For young people outside those communities, the National Crisis Text Line, 741741, is also available. These will be especially important resources during the summer months when schools are closed and we can't reach students through Ending the Silence.

We've weathered an unbelievably challenging and uncertain time. Let one of the take-aways from the pandemic be that our children's mental well-being is just as important as their physical. And as we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, let's invite more conversations that allow our young people to bravely say "I'm not OK." In these moments, we have the opportunity to replace stigma with empathy and understanding.

• Kimberly Knake of Oak Park is the executive director of NAMI Metro Suburban.

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