The national data are grim. The CDC reports that the percentage of 12 to 17-year-olds visiting the ER for mental health crises increased by 31 percent in 2020 over 2019. A national research poll of parents reported that 45 percent of their teens' mental health had worsened in 2021. But the data needs even further review.
New Mexico data
Here in New Mexico, we have had the leadership and commitment to make New Mexico the leading state with its percentage of the population vaccinated. But it is also the state which ranks 50th in the country in the well-being of children -- marked by poverty, low education, food insecurity and the limitation of health care. To add the stress of the pandemic to these realties is a crisis for many families.
At Taos Behavioral Health (TBH) our staff has been faced with the reality that our youth clients can no longer be served on site at the schools. Knowing the real needs of our clients, we rented the Christian Academy building to develop an elementary program that created stable pods with consistent staff who supported youth in accessing their education and enriched their behavioral health services. We placed our middle and high school clients on site at the gym on the south side of town.
Nationally, it is estimated that 3 million students stopped going to classes - either virtually or in person. As the school district struggled to respond to the new realities, we kept our focus on how to support educational and behavioral health needs. As Brian Salazar, director of the middle school/high school SUCCESS program commented, "In normal times, our clients have difficulty with academics and seeking help for their challenges. One of our top goals in this program is to help them learn to advocate for themselves."
Different roles to learn
Yet suddenly that advocacy means learning to frame your request for assistance and then decide - should I call my teacher? Email her? Text her? Will she respond with care and support? Will she give me an extension on an assignment? I think I am already failing - does it make any difference?
The clinicians and Coordinated Community Support Service (CCSS) workers lean in to guide the students, compliment them on an effort, help them try again if the first attempt didn't work.
As the district dealt with state decisions and negotiated with teachers and their union - often decisions had to be changed. Neither our staff nor our clients are familiar with this much uncertainty and change.
Youth have not yet had deep experiences with their most stable system - their schools - changing their choices. While the TBH staff could support each other and forge creative responses, these changes create huge stress for youth. They feared they might get the virus, or a family member might and there seemed to be limited protection at first.
Aside from the realities of limited access to online education, anther stress impacted parents and caretakers dramatically. Suddenly the parent role was changed - they were expected to enhance their youth's achievement - when they may have limited education and training as educators.
While parents nation-wide report that they desire health and wellness for the youth above all else, students are reporting deep stresses created by parents. Desiring to help their youth, often parents spend too much time over-seeing and criticizing. In fact, nationally, the strongest prediction of depression in teens was linked to parent criticism and unreachable demands.
High school stressors
This reality is especially strong in the high school years when the fear of "next steps" is very strong. Students worry their current education model is not giving them the deep skills they need to go on to college or vocation training. Without the group support and easy access to teachers, they withdraw and become depressed. Similarly, parents have commented, "I never have any alone time and I am always on duty. Sometimes I don't know what role I am playing."
The additional loss of the extracurricular activities, and especially sports, has reduced the richness of the school experience. As Taos County seniors looked at no prom, a community that celebrated by "putting the lights on" and robing and graduation ceremonies with "tickets only" attendees, they showed their strength. As the state emerged from the required-mask state rule, they showed their joy in parties and dancing and an excitement for the future.
What can you do?
If you are a parent who came through this time - give yourself congratulations. If you have youth, hug them and say they have experienced and learned more than any previous generation has. If you are a neighbor, a relative - congratulate them - do something special for the family and show your community pride. We have shown our community strength!
TBH has the largest licensed and credentialed staff in Northern New Mexico. We can be reached at 575-758-4297 or taosbehavioralhealth.org or 105 Bertha Street in Taos for scheduled appointments.
Mary McPhail Gray is the Board Co-Chair of TBH and can be reached at 575-779-3126 or email@example.com.