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Your Healthy Family: Pandemic shared trauma particularly challenging for kids

Posted at 4:02 PM, Mar 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-07 11:28:10-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — In this Your Healthy Family, as we continue to highlight mental health professionals’ role in helping people affected by the pandemic - especially young children - it’s worth noting that Saturday, March 5th, 2022, is the two-year anniversary of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Colorado.

Over the last two years, there is no question we have all been impacted by the pandemic on some level.

FREE MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCE: UCHealth Video Series - COVID stress in kids

Dr. Kathy Sigda is a licensed clinical psychologist who provides services to children and adolescents at UCHealth Mountain Crest Behavioral Health in Fort Collins. Dr. Sigda says, “The pandemic has really been a collective prolonged traumatic experience. We've had to go through all these changes and adapt to all these things that we would've never anticipated."

In some ways, a shared traumatic experience isn't uncharted waters for mental health professionals in the United States.

“One parallel, somewhat in recent history, is the collective trauma of 9/11. After (that day), there were skyrocketing rates of anxiety and mental health issues across the country. Particularly in New York City, but the impact of 9/11 was felt across the entire country. Children, adolescents, adults - really for every group, mental health issues spiked after that collective trauma,” says Dr. Sigda.

Where the COVID-19 pandemic is new territory in terms of recent history in our country is its scope. “9/11 was one day and we had a number of deaths. The pandemic has been two years and we’ve had an enormous number of deaths, so we don't yet have the data on the impacts it’s having on mental health.”

Also, the COVID-19 pandemic’s emotional trauma goes beyond the loss of life, in the many ways it’s impacted our daily lives for the last two years. Dr. Sigda explains, “The scale of the pandemic is so much greater (than 9/11) that it's a very logical assumption to think that mental health issues are going to continue to increase over the next several years, partly as a result of this ongoing traumatic experience we're all living through.”

Dr. Sigda also says younger children have been particularly impacted. “If you just sit down with your child and ask them, ‘Hey do you remember first grade when you went to school and you didn't have to wear a mask?’ They might remember some aspects of it and they might not remember it at all. Of course older children and teenagers will remember it, but for six, seven and eight-year-olds, two years is a huge amount of time in their lifetime. Just having a baseline of what our normal used to look like, a lot of our younger children simply don't have that. We used to talk about in early 2020 throwing around the phrase ‘the new normal’, well it became the normal for our children, and they don't necessarily have a solid foundation that they can remember anything different.”

Dr. Sigda also points out there are the aspects of social development young children simply haven't had, like some of the basic visual cues of communication.

“Seventy to 90% of communication is nonverbal, and for the last year we've mostly been wearing masks and kids can't see each other's faces and they don't get that sense of social cues from even their teachers or their peers, so social and emotional development is lacking. There are a lot of natural experiences that have been missed over the last two years so it's going to take significant time to regroup and bounce back from that.”

While mental health professionals know they have a lot of work to do in the coming years to help especially young kids readjust to life after lockdowns and mandates, the bottom line is there are simply more kids who need help than people who can help.

Dr. Sigda says, “We have a vast shortage of mental health providers in Colorado and across the nation. Especially mental health providers that specialize in children. What families are finding right now is that they may call to make an appointment and it may be two to three months before they can get in to see somebody, which is not a state of affairs that I wished we had but this is our reality.”

In our next story Dr. Sigda will talk about the solution she and her colleague Jay Percell came up with to get parents valuable information and tools they can use to begin helping kids right now. You can view the materials in this new free resource UCHealth has in place right now for parents and kids [uchealth.org]. (https://www.uchealth.org/today/covid-19-stress-in-kids-videos-mental-health-tools/ [uchealth.org])

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