Pediatrician examines students’ mental health

“Kids who in the past may not have had trouble with school or with moods are suddenly having trouble,” Lisa Denike said for Kaiser Permanente Northwest.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The pandemic has increased the need for mental health resources among Oregon children, but behavioral issues in schools have been on the rise even before COVID-19.

On Wednesday, KGW spoke with a pediatrician about what she’s seeing and what she says parents can do to help students struggling with mental health issues.

Dr. Lisa Denike is the Regional Head of Pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente Northwest. She said parents have a role to play when it comes to helping and supporting children with anxiety and other mental health issues.

“I see him every day that I see him in the clinic. Kids who in the past may not have had problems with school or with moods suddenly have problems,” Denike said.

She said there were a lot of kids who had anxiety or feelings of sadness before COVID, but the pandemic has caused an increase.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in mood disorders in children,” Denike said.

Denike said for many children, the return to full-time in-person learning has been a shock to the system after being home for two years.

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This is exemplified in a Blue Shield of California survey which showed that when students returned to school in the fall, 31% felt emotionally ready to socialize in person, 20% believed they would do well in school and 28% thought they would be able to focus on learning.

The general uncertainty at school as well as the acting out of some children can aggravate the situation.

“I had a child the other day who was very worried about her own safety in a classroom and she was of primary school age,” Denike said.

She said that usually young children she saw told her they were worried about not wearing a mask. They may have lost a family member to COVID or they are worried that a family member will get sick.

“Older kids, teenagers, were delayed by not being two years old to develop their personalities outside of their families,” Denike said. “Many of them are afraid to go back to school surrounded by their peers.”

But the trend of college students taking action began before the pandemic. Denike pointed out that the world has changed a lot for children over the past five to ten years.

“Most kids have the internet in their pocket now. Most parents don’t monitor what their kids are exposed to. There’s a lot of stressful and inappropriate content out there and I think that’s part of the reason for that,” Denike said.

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Parents also have the Internet at their fingertips.

“I also think the activity takes away our true connection to our children. So this lack of contact with your children has a huge impact on their emotional and physical well-being,” Denike said.

Denike said parents have a role to play, to make a conscious decision, put devices away and focus on their children.

“I think one of the most impactful things we can do for our kids is schedule regular one-on-one time with each of our kids.”

She said one-on-one time can be a few times a week for five to 10 minutes, where a parent puts all distractions aside to connect with their children.

Additionally, Denike said she has heard that lately the mental health system has been so overwhelmed that there are often waiting lists for care. She said she was heard because of waiting lists, parents sometimes decided not to seek mental health help.

“What I would say is don’t give up. The sooner you can heal them, the better,” Denike said. “And if you’re on a waitlist now that’s a month long, that’s better than being on the waitlist two months from now is a month too. So I encourage them all [parents] to really start asking for that care as soon as they’re involved.”

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