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Doctor: Pandemic’s mental health toll on kids continues as school starts again


Doctors continue to see anxiety and depression in children driven by fears related to the coronavirus pandemic and isolation it has caused, a Columbia psychiatrist said.

And the battle of masks in schools has the potential to increase those problems.

Dr. Laine Young-Walker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with MU Health Care, spoke to ABC 17 News about kids' mental health amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the return to the classroom.

"You know, the pandemic has really gone on longer than we ever anticipated, I think," Young-Walker said. "So, over time, over the last year and a half, we've seen different impacts on children and adolescents. A lot of uncertainty existed early on and still exists about the impact of COVID, and being ill with COVID."

"That uncertainty has increased anxiety. So we've seen increased levels of anxiety, some of the isolation that's come with COVID has caused maybe some increased sadness and depression. We've also just seen children and adolescents whose life has been changed a lot, their academic setting has changed maybe more than once. And so those things have really caused ... some challenges with learning or academics as well."

Public school districts in Columbia and Jefferson City have pages listing resources for students aimed at helping with mental health issues.

Virtual learning -- which districts including Columbia Public Schools relied on for long stretches last school year -- has affected everyone differently, Young-Walker said.

"I think there are some children who may have thrived in that environment with others that really struggled with not having that interaction, that engagement with having the virtual learning process, not having a teacher right there to go through every point," she said. "So for many children, it's been very hard. Some have felt like they've taught themselves or they maybe reached out to outside resources -- a tutor or someone they could work with -- to help give them some of the things they were missing in the virtual learning process."

Mental health issues can be hard to identify in younger children and teens. Young-Walker said communication between children and parents is critical. Parents should monitor for sudden, drastic changes in behavior and have a sympathetic ear, she said.

Students encounter peer pressure in school on a daily basis, with the pandemic only increasing stress. Young-Walker said the pressures of wanting to mask up, or wanting to keep the mask off, are real. Children differ in their attitudes toward masks, she said.

"I've seen some children be very insistent, 'regardless of what anybody else is doing, I need to have a mask,'" Young-Walker said. "So I do think there's some children that will kind of go into, 'what are others doing And that's what I feel comfortable with.'"

But wearing masks is no longer a foreign concept to students and parents as it was before the pandemic, she said. Teachers have to navigate the issue with nuance and communicate that students should respect their peers' choices in places where masks are optional.

Educators should also teach students to respect others and the rules.

"If it's not a mandate, and some kids are in, some aren't, (a teacher should) talk about that, to be open about it," she said. "Everybody has a choice. And so some people may have a mask on and some people may not. But that doesn't mean whatever their choice is, if there's not a mandate, is wrong. Either way."

Schools in Mid-Missouri are taking different approaches to the pandemic as classes begin. Columbia Public Schools requires masks indoors at all times, while the Jefferson City School District requires them only when social distancing isn't possible.

In other districts, masks are optional in all settings.

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Ben Fein

Ben Fein is a multimedia journalist for ABC 17 News. You can usually see his reports on weekend mornings or weekdays at 5, 6 and 6:30 p.m. on KMIZ.

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Deborah Kendrick

Deborah is a weekday evening anchor and investigative reporter for ABC 17 News.



  1. Terrorizing children over a virus that has little to no effect on them, and for which they are not a significant transmission vector, is irrational. Think about it. You are a developing child, searching for your place in the order of things, and now you are told you are so dangerous that you have to be isolated and masked. That no one want’s to see you or touch you, and you should not want such either.

  2. What about teaching a child to cover a cough or sneeze?

    To me, masking is the same thing.

    We’re not saying the individual is untouchable
    We’re saying germs they may carry are dangerous. We’re saying they must care for others and try to not get them sick, and requiring the behavior that will achieve this. With a sneeze, it’s putting one’s nose into their elbow. We teach this in preschools. Others will do these behaviors, as well, to protect them. Because We’re a community that cares for each other.

    Children readily understand these things, and positively comply, because being a good friend is a value they want to embrace.

    The adults are the problem, here- and, absolutely, fuelling unnecessary anxieties.

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