Being a teen has never been easy. Being a teen in the age of social media is harder still. Add to this volatile mix a pandemic stretching into month 22. Given these factors, it’s heartbreaking but not altogether shocking that last week U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised the alarm on a mental health crisis affecting young people.
From our own conversations with partners in the mental health field, as well as with JCCs, day schools, camps, and beyond, we’ve gained considerable insight into the pandemic’s damaging effect on children and teens. In recent years, growing numbers of young people have been exhibiting higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Covid took a troubling trend and made it dramatically worse.
The surgeon general’s advisory enhances our understanding of what’s at play. According to the report, risk factors for young people include pre-Covid mental health challenges; living in an urban area or an area with a more severe Covid outbreak; having parents or caregivers who are frontline workers; disruptions in routine, such as not seeing friends or going to school in person; financial instability; and the trauma of losing a family member or caregiver to the virus.
Just being worried about Covid is a risk factor. Little wonder a global study of 80,000 youth found that symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic. Another data point, UJA’s recent Covid-19 Impact Study (which was limited to adults) found that 29% of young adults, ages 18-34, reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Painting an even grimmer picture, the surgeon general shared that in early 2021, emergency room visits in the U.S. for suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for boys compared to the same time period in early 2019.
It’s clear today that we need to be there in a much more significant way for children, parents, teachers, caregivers, and social service professionals.
And we are.
Last week, UJA awarded $1.5 million in emergency funding — supplementing the over $25 million we give annually to support mental health and well-being. These emergency funds will help provide staff psychologists, peer-to-peer support groups, and training curricula at JCCs, camps, day schools, and social service providers. And we’re reaching a wide range of communities and populations, including Orthodox, Russian-speaking, Sephardic, LGBTQ, children with disabilities, people of color, and lower-income families.
Some examples of the programs we’re funding: At the JCH of Bensonhurst, we’re supporting a culturally competent therapist to work with Russian-speaking teens and tweens. Funding to JOWMA (the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association) is helping create a program that will arm educators at yeshivot and day schools with the tools to support students and recognize when they need higher levels of care. Our grant to Grand Street Settlement is launching a biweekly virtual teen town hall to help low-income communities. Funding to Hannah Senesh Community Day School is underwriting an extensive three-part training for parents on mental health and technology.
Beyond supporting these programs and many others, one of the most important things we can do collectively is eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues and normalize seeking help. No parent should feel completely helpless. No child should feel ashamed if they’re struggling. No professional should be without resources to deliver critical care.
And right now, to varying degrees, we’re all feeling unmoored once again as we deal with the uncertainty of the Omicron variant. But what has steadied the ground beneath our feet all these months, and what will see us through the next stage of the pandemic, is knowing we’re not alone. We are part of an undaunted and resilient community, here in crisis and every day — a source of strength for us all.
Resources for those seeking help for themselves or a loved one:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
If you or someone you know requires immediate assistance or mental health support, call the 24/7 emergency hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text GOT5 to 741741, the New York State Crisis Text Line
For 24/7 assistance: 646-517-0222
Central Nassau Guidance & Counseling Services
For inquiries: 516-822-6111 (during business hours)
Ohel Children's Home and Family Services
Crisis Response Team Hotline: 718-686-3165
For other inquiries: 800-603-Ohel (6435)
The Jewish Board
For support or other inquiries: 1-844-ONE-CALL (1-844-663-2255) (during business hours)
Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS)
For a 24/7 emergency hotline: 914-684-6819
To learn about treatment options: 914-737-7338 x 3119 (during business hours)