The Agony of Isolation

Spring 2021

SINCE MARCH OF 2020, COVID-19 HAS PUT UP BARRIERS to normal life for all of us. For many children and teenagers, the effects of isolation – lockdowns, social distancing, bans on gatherings, distance learning – have been devastating. We asked Todd Karlin, Psy.D., chief program officer of Astor Services (a Catholic Charities of New York–affiliated agency serving children and families in the mid Hudson Valley and the Bronx), to give us an overview of what young people are facing and what parents and community members can do to help.

Archways: What kinds of emotional or psychological tolls have pandemic restrictions taken on our young people?

Dr. Todd Karlin: The toll has been significant, beginning with the loss of activities and social engagement – extracurricular activities, proms, graduations. These experiences can’t be replaced. On top of that, there has been the unpredictability and uncertainty tied to this yearlong event.  Without a clear end in sight, it has been hard for some adolescents to envision a future in which this will be behind us.

For many who were already struggling with mental health issues, the loss of direct connection with others and the inability to engage in coping strategies has exacerbated symptoms. Understandably, there has been increased reliance on social media for connection. That may be better than no connection at all, but can create a distorted view of reality and heighten feelings of depression and anxiety.

AW: Has the pandemic period caused an increase in substance abuse?

TK: Early data suggests that there has been an uptick in usage and overdoses during the pandemic. Contributing factors are a lack of other outlets for youth through socialization or athletic activities, as well as simple boredom. Unfortunately, solitary drug use in the home has a greater potential to lead to accidental overdose, so the danger is magnified.

AW: Has there been an increase in frequency or severity of domestic violence or abuse?

TK: There is evidence that instances of domestic violence and abuse have increased. This uptick has been detected in spite of the fact that many reports of child abuse and neglect ordinarily surface from school reports. With so many schools closed early in the pandemic and many kids learning remotely, school reports fell off initially. And with many partners and children in lockdown with their abuser, supporting victims through treatment presented unique challenges, since privacy is essential for the safety of a victim of abuse who is reaching out to get support.

AW: What sort of issues are we seeing in young children and teenagers? In parents?

TK: Anxiety, depression and trauma manifest differently for each group, but have impacted everyone.  For our younger kids, while some of them are managing the upheaval, others are struggling, and the impacts can be pervasive on social skills development, academic progress and mental health. Other kids have thrived in the short term with some of the typical stressors of the school day removed, but they may be re-entering school this fall not having seen a classroom (or attended regularly) in as much as 18 months. This will be a tremendously difficult transition for many of them. Disparities in access to technology or high-speed internet mean that the impact has not been felt equally by all populations. These disparities have also impacted impoverished communities in their access to remote medical and mental health support.

For parents, it’s important to note that none of this is occurring in a vacuum – increased parental stress impacts the family system and has residual impact on kids. It can’t be repeated often enough: To successfully care for others, you must care for yourself.

AW: Has there been an increase in mental health emergencies? Has the suicide rate gone up?

TK: It’s been abundantly clear that high-risk crisis behaviors and suicide attempts have increased. The CDC estimated a significant increase in suicidal thoughts this summer for older adolescents and young adults compared to pre-pandemic. Recent research has suggested that the same non-white communities that have been disproportionally impacted by COVID are experiencing the most significant mental health impact. We’ve seen a tremendous need for services for the most vulnerable children and adolescents; the programs that serve them are constantly at full capacity or at a backlog. With schools not identifying kids as early, by the time some students are referred, they are already in crisis.

AW: What can we do as individuals to ease the pain of a neighbor or loved one in emotional distress?

TK: Checking in on one another and reaching out to someone who might be experiencing distress can be the most powerful intervention. While these may be difficult conversations to begin, many times people are grateful that their distress has been noticed. By showing that you care about their pain, you can move someone to seek help.

Be persistent in outreach. Ask honest questions about whether the person has had thoughts or plans that involve self-harm. It’s important to know that bringing up concerns about self-harm does not lead to increased suicidal thoughts. On the contrary, by directly addressing this question, you allow for an honest response.

While we never know when we might find ourselves in a position to intervene, keeping handy information about community resources, helplines or houses of worship can make all the difference. If someone is expressing suicidal thoughts with plans or intent to harm themselves, they should be evaluated by a medical or behavioral health professional.

Article published in Archways

Additional Coverage:
Manhattan Times News
News Locker

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