We knew the kids weren’t alright. But they might be struggling even more than we think. A March 2022 study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows a 30 percent increase in childhood anxiety or depression rates, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in 5 children have a mental health disorder, which can range from anxiety and depression to ADHD and disruptive behavior disorder.
Courtney Cinko, M.D., a psychiatrist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), sees kids struggling every day in back-to-back appointments. “The problem is big and getting worse,” she says. The pandemic is an obvious culprit, with lack of access to typical supports and busier parents contributing to increases in anxiety and depression. But Cinko says the concerning trends began emerging much earlier, particularly with more and more kids on social media.
“They always have to be ‘on,’ ” Cinko says. “And they always have to put on this persona and never get to be their authentic self,” especially during pivotal years of identity formation in junior high and into high school. “With friends, and bullies online, lots of kids are trying to figure out who they are—and what does that mean?”
Only about 20 percent of kids struggling with mental health conditions are getting help, the CDC reports. Access to care is a barrier for many, and longer wait times due to heightened demand for care only compound the problem. “There’s just not enough of us,” Cinko says, pointing to a workforce shortage of child psychiatrists. “Kids are worse off than they have been before, so we’re not catching it early enough. They end up very sick, very depressed, very anxious. In Cincinnati, our kids are sometimes waiting two to three months to see therapists, and it’s significantly longer of a wait time to see someone for medication treatment.”
If your child is waiting for mental health care, there are still steps you can take now, starting with reaching out to your child’s pediatrician, who can often manage care until other specialists are available. Cinko emphasizes making frequent and meaningful check-ins with your child a priority. “The biggest protective factor against suicide is having strong adult connections,” she says. Resist the urge to let your child push you away (even if it feels like you’re invading their privacy), and watch for early signs of worsening mental health, such as isolation, changes in behavior, inability to have fun, and issues with friends or school.
Fortunately, Cinko says parents can have hope for a full recovery. “Once you get them going on a treatment plan, their chances of success are very high, especially when you treat it early.”