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Physicians share tips for identifying mental health issues in children

Pandemic hit those already suffering from stressors especially hard
The San Juan County Mental Wellness Resource Center opened in late 2020 to connect people with resources they need for mental wellness. During Mental Health Awareness Month, San Juan County, N.M., hopes to raise awareness so people can get help. (Morgan Mitchell/Durango Herald)

FARMINGTON – May is Mental Health Awareness month, and this year, pediatric physicians are weighing in on the importance of youth mental health.

The goal of the month is to “raise awareness about the importance of positive mental health, break the stigma of seeking help for mental health and inform people about the resources available in the community,” according to a news release from San Juan County, New Mexico.

According to the release, 20% of Americans suffer from a form of mental illness, and in June 2020, 40% of Americans reported struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse.

The pandemic did not help.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit those already suffering especially hard, and even more people have suffered from declining mental health,” according to the release.

Meredith Phillips, a pediatric nurse practitioner with San Juan Regional Medical Center, said this year has been tough, and children are not exempt.

“We’ve had a lot more sleep concerns – falling asleep, staying asleep, anxiety and worries – in kids and also some depression, as well,” Phillips said.

According to the release, San Juan County adults and youths have a higher rate of reporting mental health distress than the state and national average.

Dr. David Hernandez with San Juan Regional Medical Center said there has been an overall increase in mental health illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, during the past year across the nation.

Hernandez said a parent’s mental health can rub off on a child.

“Children are really keen on picking up on those stressors that you’re feeling as a parent perhaps, and they will transfer that into themselves,” Hernandez said.

He said some warning signs might be regression in developmental milestones, such as a child who was potty trained having overnight accidents that are suddenly a problem again. In teens, he said they will feel withdrawn and often not share their feelings with parents.

“It’s important to have an open discussion with your child because it really helps to talk some of these things out,” Hernandez said.

Phillips said some warning signs for anxiety in young children might be anger or irritability and crankiness, and she said for depression, kids will usually not seem to enjoy the things they used to want to do.

“So we really encourage parents to keep a routine as best as they can with kids, and keep them active,” Phillips said.

Dr. Shawna Young with San Juan Health Partners Pediatrics gave additional tips about how to help reduce stress for families because the home, which was once a safe haven, has now become a place of work and school because of the pandemic.

Young recommends a schedule, and depending on the child’s age, some fun, interactive activities to help children work on their fine motor skills, gross motor skills and thinking skills.

“One example is to create little stations around the home that you want your child to participate in during the daytime,” Young said. “Things like an art station, a creative station, a building station, a blocks station – those types of things.”

An added bonus, Young said, is the tiny stations can be in a safe contained area, so the house doesn’t become a mess from activities.

The San Juan County Mental Wellness Resource Center opened in late 2020 to connect people with the resources they need for continuing mental wellness.


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