An alarming trend in children’s mental health attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic may be more prevalent than many are aware, prompting calls for awareness from those who work closely with youth in the Rio Grande Valley.

Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of McAllen, said mental health issues among children have become much more common since they have reintegrated from isolation back to school and to the club.

“During summer camp, we saw — and it’s really unfortunate — the mental health of our children has deteriorated,” Alcantar said. “We especially saw that in our fourth, fifth and sixth graders. We do have a social worker here, and we do have a mental health program. The amount of need that is out there in regards to mental health resources far exceeds our capacity.”

Alcantar said the club works with a clinician, which is part of a state-funded program, and a social worker to try to provide support for children who may be suffering from certain anxieties and stress. However, she urged parents to be mindful of their children.

“Families that have children in those grade levels need to proceed cautiously and to be mindful of reintegration that’s happening with our children,” she said. “We have had to work with Tropical. We have had Tropical come and assess here, and see that the need is so significant. Then these individuals have been taken to Tropical.”

Alcantar, who was referring to Tropical Texas Behavioral Health, said the significant rise in mental health cases among youth has continued to be prevalent throughout schools and with the club’s after school programming.

She said she’s delivered presentations regarding reintegration and its correlation to children suffering from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, noting that reintegration is something all parents should be aware of.

“What we saw, and we prepared ourselves for it, is not age appropriate,” she said. “Normally, pre-k and kindergarten children would cry the first couple of days, and then they don’t — just like in kindergarten when you drop them off. What we were actually seeing was kids as old as fifth grade that were afraid to be away from their parents because they’ve been in isolation.”

Two boys, ages 9 and 11, attend a group session at the McAllen Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Some children have developed separation anxiety and a fear of getting sick after being at home for the past year and a half, she added. Children are also becoming more sensitive to loud noises and being in large groups.

“So they’re agitated, they’re frustrated, they’re acting out because they don’t necessarily know how to process that overwhelming feeling of the world,” Alcantar said. “It’s surprising to observe. I think we all need to be very mindful. This is really hard on kids. We took them from being alone to being out here, and it’s really heavy for them. They may not be able to communicate how they feel, but their behavior is showing it.”

Vanessa Vale Saenz, licensed professional counselor supervisor and vice president for Behavioral Health Services at DHR Health, said the hospital has seen a large increase in the number of admissions to the inpatient psychiatric center since the pandemic began in 2020.

“I think that the hospitalizations are a good indicator of how significant the impact is because an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization means the worst of the worst,” Saenz said. “The children are literally coming in as if it’s the worst day of their life — suicidal, homicidal, extreme aggression, completely disrupted in their school and home routines, unable to manage psychosis even in some of our adolescents, and increased substance use.”

Saenz said that throughout the pandemic, and more so now that the school is back in session, hospitals have seen significant increases in hospitalizations. She said there have been weeks where there have been no adolescent psychiatric beds available throughout the Valley.

The children’s unit, which is usually the lowest filled part of the hospital, has been running at 70% to 90% capacity in recent weeks since the school year began, according to Saenz. Typically, that unit runs at 50% capacity. The adolescent unit has seen an increase from 70% capacity to 90% and 100% capacity.

“I know that that’s directly tied to the pandemic because as we know the children had to make a big adjustment from being in person and going to school to transitioning to online learning, and now they’re having to make another adjustment from online learning back to the in-person school setting,” Saenz said.

Marina Garza, a social services specialist, holds a group session at the McAllen Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday in McAllen.
(Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Many of the young patients, Saenz explained, display symptoms that are consistent with adjustment disorders, in which children begin to struggle with stress management, poor impulse control and may even develop a school phobia.

“When you add the fear of the pandemic, especially for those fifth and sixth graders, that’s old enough for them to understand what’s going on — the very real threat that the virus poses on their health,” Saenz said. “Many of them have experienced loss and have had to grieve because of that. They’ve lost aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, parents, and that in and of itself you can see how there’s a ton of stressors.”

“Adults are able to cope more appropriately, if you will, because we have life experiences that have taught us how to manage our stress and how to manage our fear,” she continued. “The children have not developed these skills to the caliber that an adult has. That makes their symptomatology worse, and as a result we start to see a large increase in the number of individuals who are seeking counseling or just in general the need for mental health services.”

Saenz said the best way to help children who may be struggling with mental health related issues is to develop daily routines, talking, and making them feel comfortable.

“You want to definitely listen,” Saenz said. “If they are willing to open up and talk to you about what their fears are, provide validation. Listen to them and validate their fears. Let them know that it’s OK to feel this way. Try focusing on more positive aspects of life. Open up, make sure that you’re listening to them, offer them good coping skills, and encourage them to take part in things and activities that keep their minds busy and off of the stress and anxiety.”

Parents who notice children displaying signs of stress and anxiety are encouraged to call (956) 362-4357 (HELP) for a free assessment at DHR Health, or call Tropical Texas Behavioral Health crisis hotline at (877) 289-7199. Parents are also encouraged to seek local resources through churches and schools.

[email protected]