COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Youth in the U.S. are experiencing a mental health pandemic, and data shows a troubling trend is emerging in Ohio.

Results from the 2022 Kids Count Data Book show the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on youth mental health, with the number of kids ages 3 to 17 struggling in the U.S. jumping from 5.8 million to 7.3 million. In Ohio, a similar increase was observed as the percentage of children experiencing anxiety or depression jumped from 9.2% in 2016 to 13.1% in 2020. 

“We were already seeing this trend of increased sadness, hopeless, thoughts of suicide, anxiety, and then the pandemic happened,” said Dr. Ariana Hoet, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “We do know that the pandemic did exacerbate these concerns.” 

Hoet said Nationwide Children’s has seen an alarming number of kids struggling with anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and an increase in emergency visits because of children with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. 

What is causing kids to struggle with mental health?

While there isn’t a single indicator for why youth are experiencing these issues, the data book said there are four main factors that reflect the link between mental health and a child’s well-being: economic security, education, health, and family. 

The book ranked Ohio 31st overall in the nation, 33rd in family and community, 32nd in health, 28th in education, and 27th in economic well-being.

The book also said rates of child and teen deaths in Ohio worsened to 28 per 100,000 in 2020. In addition, the number of students considered economically disadvantaged went up from 47.3% of students in 2019 to 48.4% in 2021.

Children whose parents are struggling to maintain steady employment also carry that stress, causing harm to their development, the data said. A lack of connectedness at school and within the family complicates the already emotionally charged processes of entering adolescence. Further, children without appropriate and timely medical interventions suffered poor emotional health. 

“There’s biological factors that can place a kid at risk, but, of course, it’s more their environment, their friends, their family, their school, their community,” Hoet said. 

For children of color and children identifying within the LGBTQ+ community, this struggle is only amplified. 

“If you’re already part of a minority community, and then you come forward having difficulty with your mental health, it’s almost like a double stigma or double bias against you,” Hoet said.

Around 3.7 million children reported being treated differently based on their race and nearly 700,000 based on their sexual orientation. In addition, a number of LGBTQ+ teens said they wanted mental health care but did not access it, with 48% reporting they feared discussing concerns, 43% reporting they feared not being taken seriously and 41% feared their identity would not be understood. 

How should parents teach their child about mental health?

Hoet is also the clinical director for On Our Sleeves, a Nationwide Children’s initiative working to break down this stigma and provide parents access to mental health information. 

“Parents may not quite know what [kids] need to stay mentally healthy,” Hoet said. “So, that’s our goal, to put that information out there for free in a way that’s understandable and accessible to everyone.” 

Teaching youth good mental health practices begins with parents modeling those behaviors, Hoet said, encouraging parents to be purposeful and think about how they are taking care of themselves — if they are spending their time doing things they value and if they feel like the people in their life support them. 

The key is for parents to take care of their mental health so children see firsthand how to deal with strong emotions. For example, if a parent has a stressful day, parents should purposefully show how they are going to deal with that stress, like following a yoga video or calling a friend. 

“[When] we’re purposeful and talk about it, it normalizes to children that emotions happen, and then it shows them how to cope with them,” Hoet said. 

However, she said a number of parents worry about having discussions on mental health because they think they will be judged, especially if their child needs assistance. Many fear it will be seen as a negative reflection of their parenting or the home environment. Hoet highlights that this is simply not the case. 

Hoet said it is normal for a parent to turn to a professional, just as a parent would turn to a professional if a child had a fever. Taking your child to a mental health professional doesn’t make you a bad parent, but the opposite. 

“All children have emotions, all children have behaviors and it’s normal,” Hoet said. “I hope parents know, as a psychologist, I always see that as great parenting, to seek that help that your child needs.” 

Hoet stresses that children do feel strong and uncomfortable emotions, and encourages parents to build a positive relationship with their children by talking through their feelings and experiences. In addition, this connection needs to transcend beyond the home, as children who feel like they belong in school and their community perform much better.

“As parents, being able to encourage connections and healthy peer relationships, with teachers, through after-school activities, with the community and with family — that can be really helpful for children,” she said.

See mental health tools and guides from On Our Sleeves here, and learn more about Nationwide Children’s Behavioral Health Services here.