Round table on youth and Covid-19: Have kids engage with mentors, signs some may be struggling

Disconnection from community can be one way the Covid-19 years will impact the mental health of teens and pre-teens. That was one takeaway Friday from the Junior League of Pelham’s virtual community roundtable discussion on the effect of the pandemic on youth mental health.

“Middle school and high school are the years of youth-led engagement,” said Laura Caruso, executive director of Pelham Together. She said that if youth are disconnected from their community and peers, they can struggle with anxiety and depression.

“How do we keep them engaged?” Caruso asked.  She said children should look to adults beside their parents such as coaches, neighbors and teachers to serve as mentors.  Caruso encouraged adults to provide jobs and internships for teens to be engaged and said teens should get involved in meaningful service, campaigns and events or activities.

Since Covid-19 hit, a lot of kids have been turning to social media to stay connected, but social media can only fill some of the void, Caruso said.

William Iannuzzi, director of the Boys and Girls Club of New Rochelle, said, “Covid has adversely affected the most vulnerable youth and families… food insecurity was staggering in New Rochelle” during the pandemic. He said that Feeding Westchester and the Junior League helped families obtain food.

Many families have struggled with childcare during the pandemic, Iannuzzi said, with parents forced to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for their children. He said there was a gap in children’s ability to learn remotely based on families’ socioeconomic level because many families cannot afford greater bandwidth to support virtual learning, while some don’t have the money for tutors that more privileged families are hiring.

The Boys and Girls Club of New Rochelle is trying to support families with learning centers, but only a limited number of children can attend due to social distancing guidelines,  Iannuzzi said. Many teens wish to work now, he said, but are unable to find employment in jobs geared towards teens.

The last speakers were Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Sarah Bren. They said that kids have been heavily stressed by the pandemic.

“Stress is putting pressure on those with pre-existing vulnerabilities,” Dr. Sarah Bren said. She said kids’ mental health symptoms are different based on their ages. Pre-schoolers will be very clingy and throw tantrums. Elementary schoolers will be irritable and avoid remote school. Middle schoolers and high schoolers will dive into social media.

The doctors encouraged parents to speak to kids in age-appropriate ways about Covid and highlight how kids can remain safe while validating their fears. Parents concerned about a child’s mental health should ask how intense a kid’s symptoms are and whether the symptoms are interrupting the child’s ability to learn and engage in activities. If so, it would be a good idea to speak with a mental health provider.

For youth interested in service opportunities, internships, or other ways to engage, check out the websites for Pelham Together and Junior League of Pelham.