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Pandemic Takes Toll On Children's Mental Health


Some children haven't been in a classroom since March. Many just don't respond to distanced learning. For some children, that's rough. For others, it's even worse. Therapists report higher signs of depression and worse. Here's Lesley McClurg of member station KQED with a story of a single father who is homeschooling twins in Oakland, Calif.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Before the lockdown, Kenley Gupta spent hours sketching.

KENLEY GUPTA: This is a drawing I did that took a pretty long time.

MCCLURG: The 8-year-old points to a woman's face.

KENLEY: The pupil and the iris.

MCCLURG: But when Kenley's public elementary school in Oakland closed last spring, she stopped drawing.

KENLEY: I was really shocked. I was really sad. I couldn't see my friends.

MCCLURG: Her spirit flattened when classes went online. Kenley spent much of her day glued to her hot pink iPad gaming. She also ate a lot.

JAY GUPTA: There was a kind of almost compulsive snacking, actually, that I had never seen before.

MCCLURG: That's Jay Gupta, Kenley's dad and a philosophy professor at a local college. He says his daughter often crumpled up into a ball, clutching her favorite stuffed animal named Green Guy.

J GUPTA: Green Guy has his own voice. And she actually just - if she talked at all, would talk in that mode.

MCCLURG: But mostly she didn't talk.

J GUPTA: They're silent storms. She'll just stop communicating.

MCCLURG: Jay is a single dad whose wife died when Kenley was a toddler. During that dark time, Kenley developed mutism, a childhood anxiety disorder where kids are unable to speak.

J GUPTA: She may have been reliving, in whatever way, that loss.

MCCLURG: Jay was also home-schooling Kenley's twin brother, Anakin. He doesn't like online classes either.

ANAKIN GUPTA: I much prefer real school because I'm much more active at real school. Home school, I just sit on the couch and say, bleh.

MCCLURG: The 8-year-old misses recess.

ANAKIN: I'm an energy boy, so I like getting out.

MCCLURG: Anakin didn't fall apart. Jay was relieved, though he later learned his son did fall behind in classes.

J GUPTA: I really felt like I was out at sea. And, you know, people I talked to had very little, you know, advice.

MCCLURG: The pandemic not only isolates kids from friends and teachers, but also support systems like counselors. Saun-Toy Trotter is a psychotherapist at a hospital in Oakland. She says she's hearing a lot of despair from kids.

SAUN-TOY TROTTER: Why does it matter? There's nowhere to go. There's nothing to do. There's nothing to connect with. There's this, like, deflated-ness (ph).

MCCLURG: Even before the virus hit, mental health problems were already on the rise in children under 17. And research shows social isolation can make things worse.

TROTTER: We do see high levels of anxiety, high levels of depression. We have had, you know, definitely increased number of suicide attempts and suicide behaviors.

MCCLURG: Trotter's school-based clinic recorded more youth suicide attempts in the first month of the pandemic than they'd had in the previous year. Schools are trying to meet the need by increasing access through new services like virtual counseling. Trotter advises parents to listen closely, set routines and slow down.

TROTTER: Give yourself as much permission as possible - right? - to rest, to reset, to restore.

MCCLURG: For Kenley and Anakin, that involves jumping on the trampoline.

KENLEY: No, no, no. I - this won't hurt.

MCCLURG: The Gupta family turned a corner over the summer. Both kids are in therapy. Jay says an outdoor camp brought Kenley back to life.

J GUPTA: It is notable that her mood - it just went 180. She's a different person.

MCCLURG: The shifts pave the way for a soft landing this fall when the twins return to distance learning. If someone sits next to Kenley during Zoom class, that helps her pay attention. An art therapist recently inspired her to start drawing again. She flips open her sketchpad.

KENLEY: Like, this is the alien hand (laughter).


KENLEY: It was meant to be like this.

MCCLURG: Kenley still has silent storms, but she's started asking for more help. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lesley McClurg