The U.S. has a child and adolescent mental health crisis and it’s not entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic (though that has certainly made it worse). In 2019, just over one-third of high school students said they had “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” Today, the percentage of high school students experiencing persistent sadness and hopelessness has increased to 44% – a sharp increase in such a short period of time.
Too many of today’s youth don’t have the necessary coping skills or access to stress relieving outlets. Data from before the pandemic shows that approximately half of the one in six U.S. children with a treatable mental health disorder were not being treated for it. It’s no wonder kids aren’t “bouncing back” from pandemic-related depression and anxiety as quickly or easily as we’d like.
Many young people are experiencing anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health providers often help them deal with these feelings in healthy, productive ways. One step is to assemble a coping toolbox, which is an actual container filled with items that can help them soothe themselves, or practice mindfulness, in a time of panic or anxiety. They’re particularly helpful for young people. The recommended items (and examples) to include are:
- An item that provides proprioceptive support (weighted cushion, vest, stuffed animal
- An item to squeeze and keep their hands occupied (stress ball, fidget spinner)
- Items to support breathing and relaxation (bottle of bubbles, pinwheel)
- Olfactory sensory support, aka something that smells good (calming essential oil spray)
- Something that requires movement (book of yoga poses, jump rope)
- A favorite playlist of music and noise-canceling headphones
- An item for oral motor sensory support (sugar free chewing gum)
- Something that requires thought or concentration (puzzle, reading book)
- Something visually soothing (hourglass, picture book) or an eye mask to block everything out so they can concentrate on their calming efforts
Take gum for instance. Whenever someone has an increased sense of anxiety, it is important they have the tools needed to ground themselves and chewing gum is an excellent way to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness, or grounding, techniques are used to bring a person to the present moment by turning them away from an intrusive memory, intense thought, and/or fear. This can be done through things like breathing exercises, going for a walk, or chewing gum. Chewing gum, for instance, engages all their senses in the activity. They should notice the color of the gum, the taste of it, the act of chewing, the smell, and even how it feels in their mouths. All of these steps can help reduce stress by getting them to focus on the moment.
The ability to stay mindful is more important now than ever. A recent study found that children who had no exposure to normal anxiety-provoking situations, such as the pressures of attending in-person school, were more fearful. Put simply, today’s youth are missing out on the opportunity to overcome their normal childhood fears and run the risk of turning to less healthy coping methods. Helping them self-soothe and providing the materials needed to do it could stop them from developing destructive habits like smoking, overeating, or abusing drugs. Teaching kids to be mindful is one of life’s most valuable lessons.