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In Vermont, kids' mental health is deteriorating after nearly two years of instability

Two photos, side by side, of a young girl and her mother wearing face masks, as well as the young girl showing off her arm with a bandaid on it, holding up a sticker reading that she got vaccinated.
Sara Lamie, Courtesy
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Sara and her daughter Avah Lamie live in the Upper Valley. Lately, behaviors of some students at school have been concerning.

Sara Lamie knows that if her daughter, Avah, has something to get off her chest, it’ll happen in the car after school:

“Sometimes she'll come right out and say, like, 'Mom, [sigh] I had a rough day today.'”

Sara asks Avah, who’s 11, if she wants to talk about it. If she does, she might say she’s worried that she doesn’t have enough friends. Or she’ll talk about something in class that was stressful. But lately, she's been saying that arguments at recess have been turning violent. And she seems upset by it.

“You know, she usually wouldn't say anything to me unless it was really bothersome to her," Sara said.

Avah goes to Dothan Brook school in Hartford. This fall, the head of the local teachers union there wrote a letter to the school board pointing out the high levels of aggressive and violent behavior in elementary schools. “Staff members and students have been hit, kicked, pushed, bit, head-butted and spit on,” she wrote.

“There really is just this kind of generalized anxiety, this floating fear for some children. What does this mean? What's going to happen? Are we going to wear masks forever? What if I get sick? What if I get my mom sick? Or my grandparents get sick? What if somebody dies? What if I die?”
Allison Hayes, licensed clinical mental health counselor at Morristown Elementary school

This is happening around the state. For instance, teachers in Addison County raised concerns about safety after an elementary school student tore apart a classroom in the fall. One student at a high school needed medical attention after a fight. There’s been vandalism in Washington County, gun threats in Windham County, and everywhere, tensions are high.

Laurel Omland is the director of the Child, Adolescent and Family unit at the Vermont Department of Mental Health. She says that before the pandemic, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation were on the rise among children and youth in Vermont.

“And where we do have some data for the period since the pandemic started,” she told VPR, “we are seeing that … the biggest area of need is in relationship anxiety and attention. And then there's a lack of optimism and interpersonal skills.”

More from VPR: Tired. Exhausted. Frustrated. With kids under 12 unable to get a COVID shot, parents feel the strain

In December, the U.S. Surgeon General called youth mental health, as exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, an “urgent public health issue” that needs “immediate awareness and action.”

Allison Hayes is a licensed clinical mental health counselor at Morristown Elementary school, where she says there’s been about a 25% increase in need for services.

Hayes says the students she works with are in three different categories:

First: there are those who were doing fine before the pandemic, and now are struggling.

Second: there are those who had already been receiving mental health care, and whatever they were dealing with has been compounded by the pandemic.

Third: there are kids whose young age and relative isolation during COVID means they’re behind on developing essential social skills.

“And so we've got these kids who are coming in with some, sometimes some big behaviors, because they just don't have the skills," Hayes said. "They don't know how to be a part of a group.”

Which makes the need for attention greater, and interactions more difficult.

But the main thing young people seem to be dealing with, says Hayes, is some form of anxiety:

“There really is just this kind of generalized anxiety, this floating fear for some children. What does this mean? What's going to happen? Are we going to wear masks forever? What if I get sick? What if I get my mom sick? Or my grandparents get sick? What if somebody dies? What if I die?”

Mollie Farnham-Stratton is a therapist who works with young people at the Vermont Center for Anxiety Care in Burlington. She says some of the biggest stressors she sees are climate change, school safety, and, of course, the pandemic — which comes with a big loss of stability.

“Whether it's a small thing like a playdate, but they were looking forward to it for so long, and then somebody’s sick, right, that kind of constant shifting. That, I think, is just exhausting.”

As long as kids have low vaccination rates and high case rates, the once-predictable routines of school and daycare will remain inconsistent. Almost half of those aged 5 to 11 still aren’t vaccinated, and kids under 5 aren’t yet eligible for any vaccine.

More from VPR: Tag along with one 7-year-old Vermonter as he gets his first COVID shot

And Farnham-Stratton says kids feel the heightened stress of caregivers, who are dealing with schedules thrown into disarray, food and housing insecurity, illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job.

“Look,” she said, “the pandemic has increased that across the board for many, not necessarily equally.”

The impacts of disrupted networks are more acute for young people from certain backgrounds: those with disabilities, BIPOC youth, LGBTQ youth, low-income youth, those in immigrant households, those in rural areas, those in foster care, and those experiencing homelessness. This list accounts for a lot of kids in the state.

On top of that, there are still the expectations of school – but when you’re stressed and worried and anxious, and already behind because of remote instruction, and then a close contact, then on break, and then still expected to be on grade level for math, it can feel like you’re a failure, says school counselor Allison Hayes.

“A lot of kids are feeling that 'I am stupid, I'm dumb, I can't do it,'" Hayes said. "I hear a lot more negative self-talk around that, that there's this demand that they just don't feel that they can meet.”

With young kids especially, say Hayes and Farnham-Stratton, anxiety doesn’t manifest as being worried about this or that. Kids often don't have the language to express what they’re feeling, or even to identify what that feeling is. Which leads some of them to act out.

“I know lots of kids out there that are feeling alone and crowded in this pandemic, like both at the same time. Sometimes you need to give them space, and other times you just have to be there to support them.”
Avah Lamie, 11-year-old Upper Valley resident

But they might just be feeling it. 11-year-old Avah Lamie does, sitting in the backseat of the car after school.

“The weight of COVID and how many lives it's taken is a lot to deal with, too,” she said. “Sometimes we just pretend the world's perfect, you know? So we don't have to beat ourselves down for something that we didn't cause.”

Therapist Mollie Farnham-Stratton says kids often will pick up on what's going on, whether it's said or not. And one thing caregivers can do is, in an age-appropriate way, give a bit of insight "to allow for that child not to necessarily internalize it," she said. "Some things can be mitigated by just not having them just be in the ether."

The thing that adults sometimes forget about being a kid, is that for what seems like a very long time, you’re old enough to comprehend what’s going on, but too young to do anything about it. You’re in between, Avah says. And that’s a hard place to be.

“I know lots of kids out there that are feeling alone and crowded in this pandemic, like both at the same time," she said. "Sometimes you need to give them space, and other times you just have to be there to support them.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.
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