COVID-19 Intensifies Children's Mental Health Crisis

Bottom line: Our commitment to improving mental health is more critical than ever.

National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day has been celebrated in May for more than a decade by advocates and providers working to improve the mental and emotional health of children. This day can remind us how essential mental and emotional well-being are for healthy childhood development. And it can remind us to ask how we — both personally and professionally — can support children, their families, and their communities in building skills that support resilience and recovery in the face of challenges.

Our commitment has never been more important. Going into 2020, we already knew we were in a mental health crisis, with escalating rates of anxiety and depression among children, adolescents, and young adults. Today, experts are warning of a “second wave” of challenges with COVID-19, not related to the physical consequences of the virus, but the emotional, financial, social, and educational consequences. 

Parents, already stressed, may not have the emotional capacity and time to focus on helping their children cope with their own challenges. Other adults who have provided support for children in the past (e.g., teachers, sports coaches, and after-school program mentors) are less available, which puts more stress on the nuclear family. Adolescents and young adults are trying to make sense of “coming of age” in a time of quarantine.

Before COVID-19, more than 40% of children in the United States lived at or below 200% of the poverty level. Now, the pandemic is further heightening issues of societal disparities based on education, class, and race/ethnicity that may further impact millions of children.

Today is also a day to be thankful. Thankful to each of you that are who are caring for sick children and their parents — and who take the time to say, “I know this is hard.” Many pediatricians and other health care providers are re-envisioning how virtual visits can support child development and emotional resilience. They also are doing what they can to support their own mental health and their staff’s well-being so they can still be there for children and families. Below we provide some resources that may help.

And today is a day to consider how this pandemic may be both a massive, unprecedented threat and also a disruptive opportunity. It is pushing us to focus on how we pediatricians can work with other disciplines, foundations, and community leaders to maybe, just maybe, be a voice for imagining an integrated, promotion-oriented, health care system that supports children’s mental and emotional health better than we have done in the last decade.


American Academy of Pediatrics webinars: resources for families:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Well Being Trust
Kaiser Family Foundation

About the Author

Laurel Leslie, MD, MPH

Laurel K. Leslie, MD, MPH, is Vice President for Research at the American Board of Pediatrics and a professor of medicine and pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine. She has extensive research experience identifying, treating, and delivering health services to children and adolescents with medical, developmental, and mental health needs.