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More Kids Struggle With Mental Health Challenges Because Of The Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

We know the pandemic has been hard on kids. Here's one indicator - the leading children's hospital in Colorado just declared a pediatric mental health emergency. Jenny Brundin, a reporter with Colorado Public Radio, has recently spent a lot of time talking to high school kids about their anxieties, and she's with us now. Good morning, Jenny.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Why did Children's Hospital Colorado declare this state of emergency?

BRUNDIN: Hospital officials say Colorado is in a youth mental health crisis. Pediatric emergency room visits were up 72% this year through April. And in April alone, it was even worse - 90%. And the visits are mostly for suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Brumbaugh says in 20 years, he's never seen such a demand for services. He recalls a father who brought in his ninth-grade son who tried to take his life after he didn't get on a baseball team.

DAVID BRUMBAUGH: Not making a ball team is something that probably happens 10,000 times a day for high schoolers across our country. But our kids have run out of resilience. Their tank is empty.

KING: Is the empty tank related to the pandemic?

BRUNDIN: We know it's partly related. Remote learning, as you know, frustrated many kids. Others saw parents lose jobs or even die from COVID. Kids were socially isolated at a time when their brains are really wired to socialize. They were also disconnected from school psychologists and couldn't just drop in, so problems became crises.

KING: And then how are hospitals in Colorado handling the crisis, handling all these kids?

BRUNDIN: They're really overwhelmed. Officials say there aren't enough beds. The system is underfunded. Kids are falling through the cracks. And we're seeing that in other states, too. Hospital officials here want the governor to create a clearinghouse of sorts to connect kids to places with available beds.

KING: I know that you were talking to high schoolers even before the pandemic, and they were telling you that they were anxious, and they were stressed. What was at the heart of their anxiety?

BRUNDIN: Yeah, I spent a year talking to them for our series Teens Under Stress. And the idea came when I was at a vigil after a school shooting two years ago. And the teenagers at one point en masse spontaneously began chanting this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Chanting) Mental health, mental health, mental health...

BRUNDIN: It was a chilling moment, seeing maybe 150 kids chanting mental health, pure anguish in their voices. They feel no one is listening.

KING: And in that year of conversations, what did kids tell you about why they're anxious and depressed?

BRUNDIN: Well, No. 1 - intense academic pressures to take advanced college-level classes, to build a sterling resume, get high SAT and ACT scores, all in an effort to get into a, quote, "good" four-year college. Amelia Federico told me about the intense pressure some schools place on kids about getting into college and good grades.

AMELIA: There could be a fire on your right. There could be a tornado on your left. But you are focused on that 100% college acceptance, and nothing will get in the way of that, even if it means students are dying, even if it means students are self-harming.

BRUNDIN: And kids told me this pressure starts as early as middle school. And some students say they learn that a four-year degree is the only path to success.

KING: OK, so you can start to see a big problem here, which is this pandemic has caused kids to fall behind in their academics. They were already stressed out about academics, and it is - it's doubly intense.

BRUNDIN: Exactly. Child psychologist Jenna Glover says kids she's seen feel unprepared academically and socially to return to school.

JENNA GLOVER: They're burnt out, and they feel so behind they don't know how to catch up. So there's a sense of hopelessness, and we know that hopelessness is the No. 1 predictor of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

BRUNDIN: And officials say eating disorders and substance abuse are also up.

KING: Aside from school, did kids tell you anything else about what's contributing to all this stress?

BRUNDIN: Yeah, kids say parents can pile on stress about school. Some experts argue that resilience in kids has declined as more parents are increasingly trying to fix and manage their kids' lives. Teenagers also identified social media as kind of a double-edged sword. It connects kids who are isolated, but teens told me it's also addictive. There's online bullying, and it messes with their image of themselves. Abby Jones is a high school student.

ABBY: I have, like, two friends, and I have 1,000 followers. Comparing myself to them was definitely a mistake, but I couldn't help it, and I definitely got pretty depressed by it.

BRUNDIN: And another big stressor that teens told me about is just plain existential anxiety.

KING: Existential anxiety - so they're worried that the future, like, doesn't look good for them.

BRUNDIN: Yeah. Kids who aren't rich or wealthy worry that they won't be able to pay off student loans or mortgages. School shootings are another big stressor. But the biggest I heard from kids is climate change, something that threatens their very existence. Like other teens, Cassidy Nicks says adults aren't taking it seriously.

CASSIDY: It's frustrating because it's reached a point where it really needs to be addressed, and it feels like there's a lack of willingness to address it. And so that feeling of powerlessness is really a struggle and that feeling of, yeah, like, existential dread.

KING: So much here. Have you talked to anyone - mental health professionals, doctors - about solutions?

BRUNDIN: Yeah. In a lot of ways, it's - doctors talk about treatment, but the youth know exactly what's needed. Their question is, is anybody listening? They want safe spaces in schools where they can decompress and learn coping skills and schools that don't overstress grades and testing. They want to learn about alternatives to four-year degrees and more work-based learning. And some want help with social media addiction. And they want parents to chill out, frankly. Finally, youth say they want mental health and anti-bullying to be top priorities starting in elementary school.

KING: It sounds like they have a lot of solutions themselves. Jenny Brundin, education reporter at Colorado Public Radio. Thank you, Jenny.

BRUNDIN: Thank you.

KING: Now, if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are free, trained counselors available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF VESKY AND LIAM THOMAS' "AURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.