Emotional Distress and Limited Access to Care Put Families’ Health at Risk

Families with children have faced unique challenges amid the disruptions, losses, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth mental health emergencies have increased nationwide and access to mental health services has often been a challenge. Meanwhile, parents have had to balance child care with work obligations while caring for their children’s and their own well-being. In light of these challenges, how has parents’ emotionally well-being fared during the pandemic, and what resources are available to help families?

From July 2021 to March 2022, many California parents suffered from emotional distress related to anxiousness and uncontrollable worrying, according to the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Nearly three in ten (28%) parents reported being bothered by feeling “nervous, anxious, or on edge” the majority of the time. And nearly one in four (23%) parents suffered from “not being able to stop or control worrying.” Across racial/ethnic groups, white, Latino, and Black parents were more likely than Asian parents to suffer from feeling “nervous, anxious, or on edge” the majority of the time.

Parents’ and their children’s mental health are closely linked. Growing mental health needs among children have been exacerbated by a shortage of mental health professionals that predated the pandemic. In particular, psychiatrists are in low supply relative to children in the Central Valley and rural northern counties, according to the most recent data from 2015. Ratios for psychologists or licensed social workers follow different geographic patterns, but provider types are not interchangeable because each specializes in different aspects of mental health treatment. In California, psychiatrists can prescribe medicine, but psychologists cannot. Furthermore, psychologists and social workers can have different approaches to counseling.

Importantly, provider availability does not always translate into receiving needed mental health care, especially for children of color. A national study finds that, among those who experienced a major depressive episode, Black teens were less likely than white teens to receive treatment (36% vs. 50%).

To address the mental health crisis among youth, California is planning a multi-billion dollar investment. Additionally, a recently introduced bill, SB 1229, would support increased availability of mental health providers by providing an educational grant for soon-to-be-licensed mental health professionals who will work with youth nonprofits or schools in areas of high need. In the interim, feeling connected to people at school, even through devices, is associated with better teenage mental health and lower risk of suicide. Teachers, family members, peers, and helplines can also extend nonclinical support in this challenging time.

For parents and others who are struggling, permanently allowing providers to practice telehealth across state lines, to rural regions, and to other underserved areas may help address provider shortages. In addition, the expansion of Transitional Kindergarten to more four year-olds and efforts to implement the state’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care could help alleviate some of the strain on parents struggling with child care.

The recent rollbacks of pandemic restrictions, business reopenings, and the resumption of in-person teaching are also likely to reduce stress for both parents and children. As the state continues to address the pandemic’s mental health ramifications, resources targeting the experiences of children and families will be particularly critical.

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