Many children are experiencing emotional and mental stress in the midst of the pandemic. Mary Kate's poem above is a prime example of using art and writing to help communicate the inner turmoil many young people are grappling with these days.
Many children are experiencing emotional and mental stress in the midst of the pandemic. Mary Kate's poem above is a prime example of using art and writing to help communicate the inner turmoil many young people are grappling with these days.

Each year on Feb. 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Church observes World Day of the Sick, asking the Catholic faithful to offer prayers for those suffering from illness and those who care for them.

The special observance was established by Pope John Paul II in May of 1992 to bring greater compassion and more attention to the sufferings of humanity, as well as a greater appreciation of the mystery of suffering. Parishes, dioceses and Catholic organizations around the world mark this day in varied ways, including special Masses, prayer services, visits to and blessings of the sick and those who care for them.

In his message for the first Annual World Day of the Sick, Pope John Paul II explained that the day, “… is intended to reach consciences to make them aware of the valuable contribution which human and Christian service to those suffering makes to better understanding among people …”

Over the past two years, World Day of the Sick has become even more significant as the coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of millions around the world, sickened an incalculable number and devastated economies and ways of life.

But a growing COVID-related crisis that has drawn insufficient attention and is a fitting focus for this year’s World Day of the Sick is the impact of the virus on mental health, especially that of children and young people.

Mental Health Emergency

A serious alarm was raised in October 2021 when the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Representing more than 200 children’s hospitals and 77,000 physician members, the declaration stressed that the signers have witnessed escalating “mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic … We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities …”

The impact on families can be devastating. What parent, grandparent or family member is not heartbroken to see a normally gregarious child now regularly curl up in a ball on her bed in tears and refuse to leave her room, or to hear a young child question if they will ever be safe if they go outside again? Children who are normally bubbly and cheerful are now not talking, struggling with anger and behavior issues or fighting a disturbing despair or overwhelming sadness that isn’t normally expected of young people. Families are often at a loss in knowing how to deal with these issues.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the health crisis, stressing, “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide …

“The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating,” the Surgeon General pointed out.

Experts acknowledge that the numbers of teens visiting emergency rooms and primary care clinics for mental.

health problems and suicide attempts have increased significantly during the pandemic.

Close to Home

For those working in the field, the evidence of this trend is indisputable. According to Mary Pettrow, service area director for Diocese of Trenton Catholic Charities’ Children and Family Services, “In 2021 alone, CFS’ Mobile Response and Stabilization Services program in Mercer County has experienced its highest number of requests for help and response dispatches for children and families in crisis in the program’s 16-year history and illuminated a pandemic-generated upward trend of children experiencing increased anxiety, depression and behavioral health issues.”

Pettrow explained that at the CFS’ Monmouth Family Growth Program, an outpatient counseling resource for children that also provides trauma focused therapy, clinicians have noticed an increase in suicidal ideation among children and teens.

“Several of the long-time staff members have noted that never, in their many years with Catholic Charities (in one case, 30 years), have so many children presented with suicidal ideation at the time of intake or later disclosed it throughout treatment,” reported Melissa Boege, program director for Catholic Charities’ Family Growth programs in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

“In addition, the staff continue to address other ongoing clinical concerns stemming from isolation, familial stress, and extended risk and exposure to violence in homes and among family members due to limited opportunities to attend school or engage in activities outside of the home,” Boege stated.

Expressing themselves in conversation with trusted loved ones, or simply in their own writing or forms of art, many children and young people reveal that they are struggling with the profound disruptions of their daily lives. They have become fearful. Family members have died. They have missed valued and important time with friends. They are reminded daily of their fear as they don masks for school. They have missed pivotal school experiences and holidays with family. They are, essentially, grieving, and the losses are cumulative.

For some youth, there is a feeling of dread and insecurity about what the future holds and, for others, a feeling of loss of control over many areas of their lives. As one hurting teen said, “The future isn’t a road full of adventures. It’s a circle going nowhere.”

While hospitals, organizations and medical professionals call for increased funding so families can access appropriate mental health screening, diagnosis, and treatment, families and communities are turning to prayer and faith for immediate support.

Strength Through Prayer

Pettrow underscored the significance of this kind of support, explaining that many of their programs use a cognitive behavioral approach, using strategies that help children manage thoughts and emotions. Therapists have long understood that religion and spirituality are important aspects of the human person. “Recognizing and respecting how faith may play a role in an individual’s healing process is paramount as it can help address feelings of isolation,” she said.

As we approach World Day of the Sick, stressed Pettrow, “We can pause … and see where we have made strides and where work still needs to be done.  World Day of the Sick is a day to acknowledge those who are suffering, as well as their caretakers, families, friends and loved ones.”

In November 2021, in between the AAP mental health declaration and the Surgeon General advisory, Pope Francis offered his monthly prayer intention for those suffering from depression.

In his video message, the Holy Father says, “Let us try to be close to those who are exhausted, to those who are desperate, without hope. Often, we should just simply listen in silence … let us not forget that, along with the indispensable psychological counseling, which is useful and effective, Jesus’ words also help. It comes to my mind and heart: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

“Let us pray that people who suffer from depression or burn-out will find support and a light that opens them up to life.”

For more information on recognizing signs of mental health distress in youth, visit AAP’s > Health Issues > Conditions > COVID-19 > Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support.