Children’s mental health becomes a ‘public health emergency’

MEMPHIS, Tenn. The mental health crisis among children has gotten so bad that local medical experts are sounding the alarm. They call it a health emergency.

Over the past decade, mental health problems in children have steadily increased.

Then the pandemic struck, ushering in a new set of challenges such as social isolation, devastating losses, and sudden family financial hardship.

The CDC reported that 55 percent of children experienced emotional abuse from parents or caregivers during the pandemic. 11% experienced physical abuse.

Schools, normally there to protect children and connect them to services, were virtual.

Mental health emergency room visits have increased among children.

There was hope that it would improve when life returned to normal, but social workers report that many children are still experiencing a high level of mental health problems. It has forced medical experts like Dr. Altha Stewart to sound the alarm.

We are in a health emergency. There’s no question about it, Stewart said. More people don’t respond, because most of them don’t know what to do.

Stewart is the director of the Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being at UT Health, which works with children with mental illness, trauma, those who are being pulled into gangs or are already in the system.

I tell people that talking about trauma and understanding behavior following trauma is no excuse. That’s an explanation, she said.

He says a child’s brain is undeveloped; they are going through puberty and these changes cause them to seek the approval of their peers. Then add new challenges from the pandemic and key issues like poverty, structural racism, housing instability, and food insecurity.

If our only answer is that we’re going to lock you up, then we’re creating the monsters we fear, Stewart said.

Finally, violence is plaguing the city. Kids testify too often and wade their way through the crime tape on their way to school. They have become victims or have lost relatives.

This adds more trauma.

Trauma is about to happen. I don’t think there’s a way around it, Shawandra Ford said.

He started Brwnskyn Yoga in Whitehaven with the intention of teaching yoga to undeserving communities. You started working with your first school just when the pandemic broke out.

When we practiced yoga on Zoom, sometimes parents were in the background and they would come and join us and practice too, Ford said.

Ford shared this photo from his yoga teaching on Zoom

He said his resume has become crucial. She has helped students improve concentration, self-awareness, and relieve stress and anxiety.

Memphis Shelby County schools have also seen the benefits. Now she works with students and seafaring athletes in multiple schools.

We met her in May at the A. Maceo Walker Middle. She taught different poses and breathing techniques.

Their physical education and health teacher, Charles Peace, said most of the students had never done yoga before.

I think there are so many negative influences on our youth, especially in our inner city, Peace said. I really want to make sure the district focuses on the whole child. Not just them academically, but them socially, physically, and emotionally as well.

MSCS did not agree to an interview, but told us it has invested in health, safety and social-emotional learning, including $100 million in supports, social workers, behavior specialists and family wellness centers.

There’s another half million in COVID mental health supplements and $22 million in mentorship and counseling programs.

Its initiatives include trauma-informed parenting sessions and an emotional support hotline.

MSCS has provided this chart for more information

MSCS has assured us that progress is being made. It claims to have reached thousands of students and curbed suspensions and gang-related incidents. They promise to continue to grow services and partnerships.

One of the biggest accomplishments we’re still catching up on, Ford said.

He said focusing on prevention is the only way out.

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