I-TEAM: Kids, teens struggle with COVID-19 pandemic in hidden ways

Published: Jan. 25, 2021 at 5:19 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - We are all just weeks away from hitting the one year mark in this once in a century pandemic.

But the increasing stress and isolation are taking their toll. It’s hard on us as adults, and almost unimaginable for our kids.

We’re working to expose the true weight of the COVID-19 crisis on both sides of the river.

In a year of constant change, the hardest one for Tammie Bartlett has been her son’s personality.

“He’s isolated,” Bartlett said. “He will not leave his room. He will not smile. He is monotone is basically what he is.”

Before the pandemic, he was on the Thomson High football team, always smiling and joking, but now, the light in his eyes isn’t the only light noticeably missing.

“His room is always dark. He rarely gets out of bed,” Bartlett said.

She’s worried. Worry isn’t exclusive to parents right now.

“It was so stressful, I had a meltdown,” sixth-grader Melanie Ball said.

Ball is tackling sixth grade and public speaking in the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were there as the North Augusta Middle School student went before the school board last month to plead for a return to normalcy.

“I’m in advanced classes, and I went down on my reading inventory score a couple of weeks ago showing we aren’t learning like we were in the old days when we went to traditional five days a week of school,” Ball said.

We checked in with her just before Christmas to see how she was doing with the continued hybrid school model in Aiken County.

“Kids are going to be depressed because it’s not fun,” Ball said. “It’s very stressful.”

School leaders are working to thread the needle of keeping kids physically safe from COVID while also prioritizing their mental health and their education.

Children and COVID-19

Dr. James Wilde is over pediatric emergency medicine at Augusta University Health.

“Doing the virtual schooling itself is extremely stressful,” Wilde said.”We’ve seen a lot of kids come in with a lot of stress and we can kind of trace it back to that.”

We obtained records from the AU emergency room. From January through November 2020 we found 105 local children ages 13 to 18 came to the ER for depression. For children as young as 5 and up to age 12, 20 were seen in the ER for depression. We also found there were at least 19 documented cases where local children attempted suicide in 2020.

Seven of those 19 were in the young age range of 5 to 12.

Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen tells us there were three suicides in Augusta in 2020 involving teens -- two 17-year-olds and a 19-year-old.

“The parents under stress because of their jobs, because of their bills during the COVID outbreak, but the kids have had their lives turned upside-down, and that’s what I’ve been seeing the most in the ER,” Wilde said.

Even more concerning considering a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that looked at 10 years of youth behaviors from 2009 to 2019 to examine trends.

All but one category are trending in the wrong direction.

If you think it’s not happening to your child, experts are telling you to think again. More than 1 in 3 students reported feelings of sadness and helplessness. One in five students seriously considered suicide. White students were found to be more likely to consider suicide while black students were found to more likely act on suicidal thoughts.

All of this research was done before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a lot of soft signs your kids are under stress,” Wilde said. “In many cases, your kids will just misbehave, and I think the parents need to understand there is some reason behind that and have a little understanding of what the kids are going through.”

Wilde says to be on the alert for the following:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Lack of interaction with others
  • Weight loss

Early intervention with struggling children and teens is key and he says so is hope.

“I think the main message to send to parents and to kids is hang in there,” Wilde said. “We are most of the way through this. This is not going to last forever. You are not alone and there’s a lot of folks feeling the same way you are.”

Meanwhile, Tammie Bartlett continues to worry about her son.

“My biggest fear is that he doesn’t come out of it,” Ball said.

It’s a fear so many parents can relate to. The feelings and emotions are real in a year that feels anything but.

Experts say validating your child’s feelings is important, so try not to downplay what they’re feeling.

If you are worried about your student, talk with their school counselor. They may have access to resources you didn’t realize were available. For anyone watching who finds themselves in a moment of crisis, the suicide hotline at 800-273-8255 is available 24 hours a day.

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