How to address mental health issues of youth in fallout from COVID-19

By Shawn Ginwright, Special to CalMatters

There will be many ways that the COVID-19 pandemic will reshape American life. While our immediate attention is on the impact the virus has had on physical health, we also need to address how the pandemic will impact the mental health of our young people and their families.

Researchers are sounding the alarm on a potential mental health crisis resulting from fear and uncertainty. A new report in JAMA Internal Medicine claims that large-scale disasters almost always increase depression and anxiety. With schools closed, there’s the real possibility of a significant rise in stress-related mental health challenges among young people and parents.

Parental stress in combination with isolation can be a recipe for a mental health disaster. This is even more likely in already stressed African American and Latinx communities. In fact, Kaiser Family Foundation found that 19% of the people surveyed indicated major impacts on their mental health.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a consensus that young people will “bounce back,” young people of color will need even more attention and support to address the social-emotional residue from sheltering in place.

How then should we address the wave of mental health issues for a post-COVID-19 America? For starters, schools should dedicate at least one week to social-emotional healing for teachers and students. 

During this week, staff and students should have opportunities to share their experiences, talk about their fears and build a culture of social-emotional wellbeing. This means teachers should identify ways to share their stories with students, and help students learn how to discuss their fears and their hopes.

Nonprofit organizations must become mental health “first responders.” Perhaps more than any sector, community-based organizations have a pulse on the communities they serve. Once the immediate threat of the virus is lessened, community organizations should focus on two things: 

1. Identifying and responding to potential trauma and mental health issues in young people and their families.

2. Finding ways to re-establish social trust and cultivate community bonds.

We must assume that everyone’s mental health has been impacted by the pandemic. That’s why it’s important for community organizations to focus attention on ways to boost social-emotional wellbeing. Just as important is regaining trust in our social connections.

It’s not that we don’t trust each other. We just don’t trust the virus. Community organizations can play a critical role in bringing people together for discussions and forums for healing and restoring our collective social-emotional health. 

Dinners, lunches and community street fairs can be effective ways to rebuild common ground. Civic leaders must saturate communities with mental health support. We all know it’s important to confront the physical impact of the virus and public health officials have shown the racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Civic leaders will also need a targeted early mental health response using unconventional methods. Hiring credible messengers like barbers, beauticians and formerly incarcerated members of our society will help reach those who are most vulnerable.

These credible messengers can spread a new “virus,” one that builds the social-emotional wellbeing of those in disinvested neighborhoods and communities. For every social disruption, there is an equivalent opportunity for something new and better. 

Now that the rules have changed, we should take this time to reimagine our future. We are all headed on a journey to a post-COVID-19 world. The only question is, what are we going to take with us and what will we leave behind?


Shawn Ginwright is a professor of education and African American Studies at San Francisco State University, and he is chairman of the board of directors for the California Endowment, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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