As COVID-19 spread last spring, so did the uncertainty and fear of the virus. Life changed suddenly: many companies closed while schools and universities were virtual.
Those early days of the pandemic are still a new memory for Sara.
“I had to pack my whole bedroom very quickly,” he said. “It was actually very, very scary.”
The 20-year-old college student said the abrupt, indefinite change affected her in a way she had never imagined.
“I spent a few weeks after I was home, I couldn’t get out of that kind of funk I was in,” Sara said. “I was very angry, anxious and sad about the issue and I really felt like I had let go.”
The gifted self-described woman says she no longer felt motivated to do well in school and struggled with Zoom calls and lack of social interactions.
“I realized I needed help when I couldn’t balance my life,” he said. “I couldn’t form a routine on my own.”
Dr. David Rube, medical director of the child and adolescent psychiatry program at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, said there are several warning signs to keep in mind.
“Behavior changes and emotions that don’t seem to go away … spending more time alone, more isolated,” Dr. Rube said. “It’s the loss of interest or previous levels of achievement that seem to be receding.”
Dr. Rube said the amount of references they have been seeing is huge.
“The level of depression, the level of frustration and the social interactions have seemed more intense,” he said.
In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Rube said they saw a decrease in the number of children and teens seeking care when people stayed home. But during the first three months of 2021, inpatient income increased by 150%. As of March 2021, children accounted for between 5% and 6% of mental health emergencies, compared to only 2% in March 2020.
“We’re seeing an increase in suicidal ideation, suicide attempts,” said Dr. Sara Rivero-Conil, a pediatric psychologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. “Our psychiatric unit is often filled to capacity.”
He said seeing patients have had more severe symptoms since the start of the pandemic. He also said the hospital hosted virtual mental health visits in March last year to help increase demand.
“These kids really need help and are so anxious that anxiety causes depression,” he said.
In 2020, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital recorded 13,217 teleportation visits. Mental health accounted for 42% of all virtual visits throughout the hospital.
“I always tell parents: you are the experts on your child,” Dr. Rivero-Conil said. “If you see any change in appetite, sleep patterns, behavior, general mood … seek help.”
Sara told NBC 6 that she was doing better thanks to the therapy.
“It has helped in many ways,” he said.
He hopes that sharing his story will encourage other people who may be struggling to get help.
“I think we can learn to empathize with people and do everything we can to understand them,” he said. “Try to destigmatize mental health.”
For Sara, taking the time to exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk around the island, has helped her on her mental health journey.
If you have a child who may be having problems, Dr. Rivero-Conil said start with your pediatrician. They can often connect you with resources and mental health professionals who can help you.
You can also call 211 in Broward or Miami-Dade counties. It is a 24-hour telephone helpline that offers crisis assistance and can also connect you to local agencies that offer advice and other social services.