As COVID-19 spread last spring, so did the uncertainty and fear over the virus. Life suddenly changed – many businesses closed while schools and universities went virtual.
Those early days of the pandemic remain a fresh memory for Sara.
“I had to pack up all of my dorm super quickly,” she said. “It was actually very, very scary.”
The 20-year-old college student said the abrupt and indefinite change impacted her in ways she never imagined.
“It was a few weeks after me being home, I just couldn’t get myself out of this sort of funk I was in,” Sara said. “I was so angry, anxious and sad about it and I really felt that I had let myself go.”
The self-described overachiever says she didn’t feel motivated to do well in school anymore and struggled with the Zoom calls and the lack of social interactions.
“I realized I needed help when I couldn’t balance my life,” she said. “I couldn’t really form a routine by myself.”
Dr. David Rube, the medical director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry program at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, said there are several warning signs to look out for.
“Changes in behavior and emotions that don’t seem to go away…spending more time alone, more isolated,” Dr. Rube said. “It’s that losing of interest or previous levels of accomplishments which seem to recede.”
Dr. Rube said the quantity of referrals they’ve been seeing is enormous.
“The level of depression, the level of frustration, the social interactions have all seemed more intense,” he said.
In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Rube said they saw a drop in the number of children and teens looking for care as people stayed home. But in the first three months of 2021, inpatient admissions were up by 150%. In March 2021, kids made up 5% to 6% of mental health emergency room cases, compared to just 2% in March 2020.
“We’re seeing an increase in suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts,” said Dr. Sara Rivero-Conil, a pediatric psychologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. “Our psychiatric unit here is frequently filled to capacity.”
She said the patients they’re seeing are dealing with more severe symptoms since the start of the pandemic. She also said the hospital set up virtual mental health visits in March of last year to help with the surge in demand.
“These kids are really in need of support and they’re just so anxious and the anxiety is leading to depression,“ she said.
In 2020, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital saw 13,217 telebehavioral visits. Mental health accounted for 42% of all hospital-wide virtual visits.
“I always tell parents – you are the expert on your child,” Dr. Rivero-Conil said. “If you see any changes in appetite, in sleep patterns, in behavior, in overall mood…seek help.”
Sara told NBC 6 she was doing better thanks to therapy.
“It has helped in so, so many ways,” she said.
She hopes sharing her story would encourage others who may be struggling to get help.
“I think we can really learn to empathize with people and try our best to understand them,” she said. “Try to destigmatize mental health.”
For Sara, making the time to exercise every day – even if it’s just a walk around the block, has helped her in her mental health journey.
If you have a child who may be struggling, Dr. Rivero-Conil said start with your pediatrician. They can often connect you with resources and mental health professionals who can help.
You can also call 211 in Broward or Miami-Dade counties. It’s a 24-hour helpline providing crisis support that can also connect you to local agencies who provide counseling and other social services.