APDU Board Member: Caregivers Express Concern About Children’s Mental Health


By: Lori Turk-Bicakci, Ph.D., Director, Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health

Disruptions to everyday life, particularly on a mass scale, have the potential to shape children in profound ways. Social isolation, canceled recreational activities, and interrupted school routines, coupled with fear of the unknown related to the COVID-19 pandemic, may be harming children’s mental health and progressing into distressing behaviors. Reports from caregivers provide mounting evidence that they are highly concerned for their children’s well-being, and the need for intervention may be great.

Data from the Family Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic questionnaire offer us a glimpse of how California children are faring. A majority of caregivers are concerned about their children’s mental health. Almost two-thirds of California caregivers (65%) were concerned about their oldest child’s emotional or mental well-being during the previous month when asked in July 2021, including 31% who were moderately concerned and 12% who were extremely concerned.

Even before the pandemic, data from the California Health Interview Survey and the California Healthy Kids Survey suggested mounting mental health challenges among California youth. From 2005 to 2017-2018, the percentage of youth ages 12 to 17 who needed help in the previous 12 months for emotional or mental health problems increased from 17% to 23%. Additionally, the percentage of 7th grade students who in the previous year felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more increased from 25% in 2011-2013 to 30% in 2017-2019. In time, we will see how these data change with the progress of the pandemic and current interventions.

Early detection and intervention for mental health challenges has grown in importance since the pandemic began. Addressing these challenges through schools, where children are most often present outside the home, may be one feasible approach.

A trio of major national-level statements on the critical need to broadly address children’s mental health were released on October 19th, and they include school-based supports as a promising approach to intervention. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have joined together to declare a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health. The White House issued a fact sheet, Improving Access and Care for Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Conditions. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education released a resource, Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral and Mental Health, that includes examples of how schools have put recommendations into action. In California, and across the nation, we have the chance to fundamentally change how we address mental health challenges among youth and support a more positive future.