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Demand for youth mental health services sharply increased during pandemic

Posted at 4:00 PM, Jul 15, 2021

Bailey Shelden is a high school teenager willing to share her story of how she coped with isolation during the pandemic.

“I’m a rising senior," Sheldon said. "I guess you could say I’m a certified pet lover. I also love photography; my family calls me a shutterbug. I have like digital cameras, film cameras, so I am a very big camera nerd. And I also love history.”

She says her mental health journey started when she was about eight years old.

“I’ve never really fit in, so I’ve always been a target for bullying,” Sheldon said.

Bullying is what pushed her to the edge.

“I remember in about middle school, and I had this one bully who was particularly mean," Sheldon said. "And I think the worst part was that she was mean to me in front of teachers. Nobody really cared. And so that led me to my first suicide attempt because I felt so alone, and I felt like nobody cared about me.”

She has since been diagnosed with panic disorder and anxiety. Through therapy, medication, and a great support system, she’s been learning how to cope.

“We’re really in a state of emergency when it comes to our children’s mental health, and this is largely in part due to the pandemic,” Dr. Jenna Glover said.

Dr. Jenna Glover is a Child Clinical Psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“So before the pandemic, kids were already struggling and having significant mental health problems, but we’ve seen rates of depression and anxiety double to triple in different places across the country over the course of the pandemic.”

Dr. Glover is referencing the results of a Harris Poll conducted online in May of 2020. Mental Health America has also collected data on how many people use its online mental health screening program. The graph shows a 200% increase in the number of people who completed a screening in 2020 compared to the year before.

For students like Sheldon, virtual schooling was a big driver of anxiety.

“Once they got settled in one type of learning, they were asked to do another type of learning," Dr. Glover said. "So this constant changing of routines, of schedules and then just the unknown has a significant drain on kids ability to be resilient, and when that happens over a long period of time, they become very susceptible to having mental health problems.”

Sheldon says she never struggled with math until she had to do it through a computer screen.

“I even learned that I would shut down and tune out once I don’t understand something to a certain extent,” Sheldon said.

Nevertheless, she got through it. Sheldon says her teachers were flexible with deadlines and understanding her mental health needs. Coping mechanisms she’s learned throughout the years also helped.

“Firstly, it has to do with disrupting the headspace," Sheldon said. "Getting out of that anxiety brain that’s telling you certain things. Because they may not be true, it’s very selective evidence my brain uses to make these disastrous claims.”

To learn those coping mechanisms, children and teens need access to mental health care. Heidi Baskfield, the Vice President of Population Health and Advocacy at Children’s Hospital Colorado, says she hopes Congress and the Biden administration prioritize critical mental health investments.

“In the same way that we invest in things like roads, bridges, and water infrastructure, we need to be thinking about the same thing when it comes to investing in child and youth mental health systems of care,” Baskfield said.

Baskfield says our youth need to be supported if we want to foster healthy and successful adults. That starts by treating mental health the way we treat diseases like cancer.

“The minute you start feeling sick, you know where to go, and you know who you can count on with respect to who can treat you and what kind of care you will be provided and that you can receive that care within your own state,” Baskfield said.

In the meantime, Sheldon uses her voice as a mental health advocate to end the stigmas surrounding mental health. She says she’s looking forward to her senior year, and she hopes to take part in all the traditions that come with her final year of high school.