By Vivian Shipe
KNOXVILLE, TN — Across the city of Knoxville and across the United States, the push is on to get children vaccinated before the next school year begins. Pfizer is vaccinating ages 12 and up and Moderna is not far behind, waiting only for FDA and CDC approval before they too join the effort to vaccinate over 25 million children ages 11 to 17 living in the USA according to the 2019 census data. Once the children are vaccinated and the pandemic is in their past, it is their mindset for the future that is now of great concern.
During several of the national zoom calls being held weekly by the Faith Leaders Initiative in Knoxville, this issue has been a main topic of discussion and several subject matter experts have been brought in on the call to discuss the impact the pandemic is having on children
and adolescents. The data presented by the Mental Health Association indicates the age group most affected is the 11 to 17 year old as anxiety and depression, along with suicidal thoughts were higher among this group than any other. The children listed isolation and loneliness as the leading factors for their mental state.
The stressors have been many. There is the fear of the unknown. Loss of family members, homes and jobs have occurred across the nation. Relationships have suffered or deteriorated. Children have been left at home alone as parents with no childcare options have had to go to work, They have had no tech help as many parents and grandparents have no knowledge of zooms and other online programs used by the children at school during the pandemic. Many areas have no internet leaving families having to scramble to find ways to get the online connections. At one point in Knoxville during the early days of the pandemic, the failure rate for virtual students, according to Knox County school superintendent Bob Thomas, was over 31 percent. Kids who did go to the school building suffered from mask fatigue and being sent home for weeks at a time whenever exposed to covid-19 during the year which put their education at risk also. The education gap widened across the country, summer school became a given.
Child abuse has risen as teachers and counselors have not been able to lay their eyes on the children during the school year to protect them. Friendships have suffered as have social skills and interactions among children, many of whom have not been around another child outside of their family for over 15 months. In addition to the pressures of these issues are the bullying, discrimination and hate crimes that have risen against the LGBTQ and Asian communities across the country.
Ben Harrington, CEO of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee who recently appointed two African American health experts to the board of directors of MHAET; shared his organizations’ data and concerns during a Faith Leaders Initiative meeting about the long
term effects on mental health from the virus and also raised the need to recruit and hire more counselors of color to meet the needs of the children who were already experiencing racial trauma, a lack of health care and racial disparity before the pandemic changed life as they knew it.
Among the needs Harrington’s report listed were the need for students to have someone to talk to, identify healthy ways to manage their emotions, ways to seek help, being able to take appropriate steps if they suspect a friend is planning to harm themselves and lack of resources for those who need help.
The pandemic may be ending but the ramifications of the virus are just beginning.