Protect their Minds: Experts Warn of COVID-Related Mental Health Troubles in Youth 

She was the little girl with the big name — a first-generation Jamaican, raised in California who was carrying a heavy secret load: nearly crippling anxiety.


Today, though, it’s a different story. Shakeena Melbourne, 33, is now a confident, licensed attorney at Black-women-owned virtual law firm, Upton Law, PLLC. She also helps other young people and individuals who suffer from anxiety (and other issues brought on by the pandemic) in addition to legal troubles.


Today’s youth are in trouble according to national reports. They are facing high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a troubling trend is emerging among today’s youth since the lockdowns took place last year. Between last March and June, suicide risk rose sharply for Americans across the board. The rise in suicide cases, though, was most pronounced among the nation’s youth.


According to a report from the CDC, from March to October of 2020 mental health-related emergency room visits increased 24 percent for children aged 5 to 11 and 31 percent for children 12 to 17 when compared to the same time in 2019.


While 11 percent of respondents to a CDC survey had seriously considered suicide, the same figure jumps to 25 percent for people aged 18 to 24.


According to CDC data for Michigan:


  • Suicide is the first leading cause of death for ages 10-14.
  • Suicide is the first leading cause of death for ages 12-18.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 18-22.


What are the warning signs linked to suicide?

  • Suicide threats
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Depression
  • Making final arrangements
  • Out of character behavior
  • Feeling like a burden or trapped/hopeless
  • Inward rage/anger
  • Increased anxiety


Though Melbourne (growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s) was anxious without a pandemic hanging over her head, she shared with The Michigan Chronicle how her anxiety impacted her self-esteem and self-worth.


“Growing up, I was the only one born here in America. What happened was I was obligated to teach them [my family] American culture through school, learning and understanding it and bringing it home,” the youngest of three children said. “A lot of the anxiety came from the pressure and I think no one understood the pressure.”


Melbourne said that she was “very lonely” being not Jamaican (or American) enough.


“I was told depression is the past and anxiety in the future — it was a combination of both [for me],” she said, adding that her breaking point (one of several) was during her AP English class at her private school in California with primarily Black and Hispanic students.


It was there when a white female teacher from a local community college came to the classroom and couldn’t pronounce her name during attendance.


“You have three syllables in your name — you’re not going to make it anywhere,” the hard-working high school valedictorian said of what the teacher told her during her senior year. The devastating experience made her question her future.


Now, the successful woman (who has internationally traveled and learned the ins and outs of law) said that she makes it a priority to help the many young people who work at the company through internships and externships. Oftentimes she’s counseling them through COVID-related anxiety and issues.


“One of the things I do now, I wanted to be in a position to help … I always took pride in sharing my story,” she said, adding that “code red” is the term young people on her team say when things are getting too much.


“This is when we talk offline, on Zoom, or a phone call, in a private chat — if you say ‘code red’ I know you need emotional help,” she said. “I’ve received a lot of code reds about COVID [and its effects]. I’m in a little support group for myself for my mental health.”


Melbourne also said that even adults are having a tough time now. She recently saw on her social media page that a former classmate was begging for help with his suicidal thoughts.


“We’re taught to take on a lot … we don’t always have outlets to share when we’re not feeling great,” she said. “Inner peace is real right now and mental strength.”


Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) Psychiatrist Dr. Shanti Mitchell helps children and adolescents in her line of work.


“We do a lot of work with anxiety and depression — two of the most common diagnoses, we treat children and adolescents for,” she said. “As far as HFHS goes we definitely [saw] an increase of families requesting appointments for new patient evaluation and also families needing sooner return appointments. I can say the children in adolescence are needing more mental healthcare services and struggling more with anxiety and depression with the stressors of the pandemic.”

Dr. Shanti Mitchell, a Henry Ford Psychiatrist.   Photo provided by Henry Ford


Mitchell added that with more schools opting for in-person learning, she is seeing more young people anxious about returning to school after being home for so long. They are anxious about having to see friends again, get up early and meet new people — while coping with a heavier assignment load. She also said that with young people not being as heavily impacted by COVID-19, that segment of the population is not too concerned about catching the virus.


“I think that has eliminated some of the fears of getting the virus,” she said, adding that some young people also are still depressed due to social isolation, having higher stress levels and other factors, including parental stressors that trickle down.


Mitchell added that having suicidal thoughts in young people, for the most part, comes from patients who already had a diagnosis of depression.


“That is mostly what I have seen — patients already struggled with mental health concerns…going into COVID… which brought their mood lower — not to say there aren’t brand new cases.”


Mitchell said that the overall takeaway is for parents to have open communication with their kids and teenagers and vice versa and don’t be afraid to ask children how they are doing and how their day is going.


“Honesty is important,” she said, adding that parents should also ask how their children are feeling about the world and pandemic events and “giving them a chance to answer.”


She added that incorporating a regular bedtime, finding time to exercise and have fun and continuing to discuss shared experiences (like overcoming one’s anxiety) can help families and their children over time.


“A lot of times the first step is finding a therapist [they’re] able to talk [to] … and find out more about what’s been affecting them and their mental health and not just assuming the mental health concern is going to go away on its own,” Mitchell said.


If you or someone you love is struggling with depression or thinking about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, which is a free resource that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for anyone who is in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress.


Also, the non-profit organization, Jason Foundation, has a Crisis Text Line that is free and available 24/7 where trained crisis counselors support individuals in need. Text “Jason” to 741741 to speak with a trained professional.


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