Why Children’s Mental Health Crisis Isn’t New: NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with author Judith Warner about the state of children’s mental health in the United States, and what can be done to help children cope with the aftermath of the pandemic.



MICHEL MARTIN, GUEST:

The school year is coming to an end, but parents’ fears are not. That’s because after two grueling years of dealing with the full impact of the COVID pandemic, we are also learning how many children and young people struggle with mental health issues, even as pandemic-related restrictions ease. In their 2022 Trend Report, the American Psychological Association called the situation a crisis. But our next guest says this crisis is not new, that in fact children and young people have struggled for years, and that the toxic politics linking the problem to the COVID pandemic is not helping. Judith Warner, a journalist and author who has written extensively about mental health issues, recently wrote about this for The Washington Post Magazine in a piece titled “The Children’s Mental Health Crisis Didn’t Start With the Pandemic.” And she’s with us now to tell us more. Judith Warner, thank you so much for joining us.

JUDITH WARNER: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So when did it start? If it didn’t start with the pandemic, is there a time frame you could point to, to suggest when, you know, this really became a concern?

WARNER: I’m sure there wasn’t a time when kids didn’t have mental health issues. I mean, it just wouldn’t make sense because adults have them. And most mental health problems start in early adolescence. But there has certainly been an acceleration in the last ten years. I think there is no discussion about that, especially when it comes to depression and anxiety.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there’s one disturbing statistic that 1 in 6 high school students revealed they had a suicide plan in the previous year. This is according to a CDC report from 2019. And that’s a 44% increase since 2009. So in that time frame you’re telling us about, why would that be?

WARNER: You know, there are so many theories about it. And the most popular theory is always that it has to do with the advent of smartphones. And you know, there’s no doubt that life online has had an impact. Social media has had a certain impact. But none of the experts I’ve spoken to has ever been willing to simplify it to one thing. I don’t think it’s ever just one thing. And at this point, you know, I think there’s always the issue of reporting that to every next generation of parents. We’ve got parents who are more and more aware of mental health issues, grew up with people talking about it, you know, they bring less stigma to it than in generations before. I’m really seeing that in younger parents now compared to my own cohort, shall we say. So of course that’s part of it. But this has also been a very stressful time in our country for quite some time, you know. And so I think you can’t distinguish what happens to children and what happens to all of us.

MARTIN: So I think with — looking at all of that, do you feel any consensus among adults that this really is a crisis? I know mental health practitioners say yes. Many parents say yes. Many school officials say yes. Do you see a broader public consensus that this is a crisis we need to focus on?

WARNER: Yeah, I think there’s a broader social consensus now that this is a crisis we need to focus on. And one thing that I don’t know is frustrating, ironic, is that for such a long time the opposite story has been the consensus. That kids were being overdiagnosed, you know, that kids were being pathologised too much and that, you know, we were harming our kids in the process. And it’s — I think there’s still some of that rhetoric in all the special snowflake talk, you know? Oh, this generation is so sensitive that they react to everything. I’ve always hated that. And especially now, I think it’s something that people should really question, because it’s clear that, you know, this younger generation is suffering and they have good reasons to suffer. And, you know, we can’t minimize what they’ve got – what they’re going through. It has been a very bad and difficult time.

MARTIN: But is there a greater social consensus about what to do about it? Do you see any consensus on a direction this country could take to address these issues?

WARNER: I think if you look at what the experts are saying — the expert organizations — the American Psychological Association, and so on — there’s a consensus among experts about what needs to be done. And it’s about access and affordability and also about diversifying the mental health workforce, the school counselor. I mean, you see this over and over. I also think there’s a consensus in that expert community that something needs to be done very quickly and you need to help kids where they are. So you have to do more work in schools to give them the tools to stay mentally healthier, you know, to deal with really high levels of distress. And the problem is, I’m in no way convinced that that’s even going to happen. I mean, you know, one of the things that parents yelling at school board meetings are now yelling about is social emotional learning, which has somehow turned into a vector for the so-called critical race theory, none of which makes any sense. . But if they’re pushing back on social-emotional learning at all, what’s going to happen, you know, if you ramp it up a little bit and say, well, you really need to build some psychological skills?

MARTIN: This actually sounds very discouraging. It sounds like a very discouraging picture. So can we get people to think about what to do if they’re concerned about this, especially for parents?

WARNER: Well, yes. And I think it’s funny too — (laughter) because I’m such a negative person — but I don’t think it’s that discouraging, solutions do exist. Solutions that work, that are not very expensive and that can be implemented very quickly and easily. That means, you know, these school interventions, these trainings, and I think that, you know, for parents to be aware of that, it would be a really important and potentially powerful thing. You know, when they ask for it, when they demand money for that, time is spent on it, instead of, as is often the case, complaining that school time should only be used for academic subjects.

MARTIN: Judith Warner is a journalist and bestselling author who has written extensively about youth mental health. Her latest book is “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School.” The article we’re talking about, about children’s mental health, appears in The Washington Post Magazine. Judith Warner, thank you so much for joining us.

WARNER: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: And if you or someone you know is considering suicide, we hope you contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the crisis text line by texting HOME at 741741.

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