Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began ringing the alarm about a not-so-nascent mental health crisis among adolescents. According to the CDC’s data, well over a third of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a fellow experiencer of poor mental health during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the data come as no surprise to me.
What has surprised, shocked and frankly crushed me is the utter dearth of resources available to help kids in need of mental health support.
My oldest son is 6. He was in pre-K in March 2020, when we one day brought him home from school never to return to his classroom again. His kindergarten experience was masked and cautious and mostly outdoors. Over and over, he heard the messages loud and clear:
You must be cautious.
We don’t know enough about the dangers of this virus, so we must take maximum precautions.
You come to school with a cold, and everyone has to go back to virtual schooling.
You come to school with a cold, and you don’t know whose grandparents may die.
My family is cautious by nature, and we were happy to take whatever precautions were needed to keep our community safe. We masked up, worked from home, limited interactions, never traveled. We followed the rules. But there were costs.
Now, in first grade, my bright and deeply curious child is understandably anxious. He was a cautious and fairly rigid kid to start with, but now his anxieties are impacting his ability to participate in the classroom. He’s afraid to take off his mask; he tells me it feels “safer” to have it on. He struggles mightily with changes to routine. He is afraid to start an assignment for fear that he’ll make a mistake. He rolls his eyes at the adults who try to help him; he either retreats into his shell or responds with dramatic histrionics.
My kid needs help. I know because I’ve received many, many phone calls from the school counselor asking whether we’ve considered therapy, and I know because I am no stranger to mental health struggles. As I’ve written before, I’ve struggled mightily with anxiety, prenatal depression, postpartum depression and rest-of-the-time depression. I have absolutely no qualms with therapy, quite the opposite: I doubt that there’s a person on the planet that wouldn’t benefit from having a safe space to let it all out. I certainly wish I’d had that opportunity as a kid.
And so, I began what I thought would be a straightforward process: check our health insurance coverage, comb through the list of in-network providers and make an appointment for my kid. To make it especially easy, I asked a family friend in the medical field for a reference or two.
My expectations couldn’t have been any farther from reality. First of all, I quickly realized that, even though I live in a major metropolitan area, I have access to a miniscule number of therapists who see kids and actually take insurance. And among those few, every last one of them is running a waitlist. I tried the Jewish Social Services Agency: not seeing children in-person, and not enough resources to run a waitlist. I was encouraged to just keep reaching out in case someone had an opening. In my free time, I guess.
I turned to the private providers, hoping that maybe if I dipped into savings, I could get care for my kid. I called office after office, reached out to administrator after administrator. The result? We’re now on 27 waitlists. And that’s not for 27 therapists — it’s for no fewer than 73 individual therapists, among 27 practice groups. I heard, over and over and over, that practices were overwhelmed by the need for care. Every single therapist was all booked up.
I should note that I work full-time and have three children, 6 and under. I used up many hours of my own medical leave to try to find mental healthcare for my child. The task was relentless and humbling. I made a spreadsheet for goodness’ sake. Enormous resources were required. For folks without paid sick leave, access to steady internet, and hours to spend on the phone, I can only imagine the barriers to care quadruple in size.
Ultimately, after weeks of searching, I found a solo practitioner child psychologist with an opening. He, of course, does not accept insurance. I’ve been told, through whispers, that one can assume that the “good” therapists never do.
My son has been working with this therapist for a couple of months now. We can’t afford it, but the home repairs will wait. I am in touch with the in-network waitlists weekly — no movement yet.
My son needs help, and I’ll move mountains to get it for him. But there is something fundamentally iniquitous at play, and I don’t know what the answers are. But I do know this: As parents, and as human beings, we should be shouting from our rooftops. There is a mental health crisis, this system is broken, and the kids need our help.