Canopy Children's Solutions, pictured here on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Jackson, Miss., is a non-profit organization that provides services for children with behavioral and mental health issues. They also work with families involved in adoption and foster care. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Of all the pandemic-related challenges Ann had to face, nothing was as worrying as when her 8-year-old started having severe anxiety attacks. 

May, her youngest child, was in second grade when her school abruptly shifted to virtual learning in 2020. She missed her librarian, teachers and friends at school. She didn’t have a cell phone or social media, tools that have proven vital to maintaining relationships during the pandemic, and felt truly isolated. 

“That triggered something in her that made an anxiety disorder show itself probably years earlier than it would have otherwise,” Ann said. 

The breaking point came a few months later when Ann put together a surprise for May. She hired someone to come in to repaint and redecorate May’s room. 

“It was supposed to be a happy surprise to have a change and freshen things up.”

May had a complete meltdown. She was eventually able to verbalize that she needed to be in control of the changes. Her room was her sanctuary, one of the only constants in a life that had been radically changed in so many ways that were out of her control. 

“I was just on the floor with her and she was like, ‘I don’t know what to do’ and I didn’t know how to help her,” Ann said. “That’s when my husband and I said ‘okay, we got to get some help.’”

The signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder May exhibited before the bedroom incident were amplified afterwards. She needed a sense of control where she could find it. Things like how her clothes were folded and which drawers they went into became significant issues.  

“It was different than when she was four and she wanted to pick the color cup she drank out of,” Ann said. “We could tell this was very different.”

Ann and her husband brought May to a child psychiatrist who diagnosed her with OCD and an anxiety disorder and prescribed her medication. She also began to see a therapist.

“Thank God we are blessed enough to be able to afford a child therapist that specializes in anxiety,” Ann said. 

Now 10-years-old, May is doing a lot better than she was back in 2020. Her parents know that she will likely struggle with these mental health issues for the rest of her life, but they’re committed to doing all they can to help her manage them, whenever and however they arise. 

“There’s still a stigma (around mental health issues) but at least in our household, we talk freely about mental health,” Ann said. “It’s okay to not be okay and to not have a reason for that feeling or to feel scared, but know that you’re safe. That’s just our brain chemicals being wonky.”

While Ann, who lives in Madison County, is grateful that her kids are in an environment where it’s safe to ask for and receive help, she worries for the kids in her community who aren’t as lucky. She had a conversation with one of her children’s teachers recently, who spoke of how different her students were when they returned to in-person learning, and how many clearly have mental health needs that aren’t being met. 

“A lot of kids can’t get that help, and that’s devastating to know as a parent,” Ann said. 

Ann is right. Out of every five children in America, one lives with mental health issues. And the vast majority of Mississippi children struggling with these issues don’t get the help they need, according to Dr. John Damon, CEO of Canopy Children’s Solutions, a major provider of mental and behavioral health care for children in the state. 

Dr. John Damon, CEO of Canopy Children’s Solutions Credit: Canopy Children's Solutions

In December, the United States surgeon general warned that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues that were already widespread before 2020. 

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy released a 53-page report that cited significant national increases in self-reports of depression and anxiety and emergency room visits for mental health crises. This came just two months after the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared “a national emergency” in youth mental health.

The rate of teen suicide in Mississippi was rapidly increasing even before the pandemic. From 2012 to 2019, the rate increased by 96%. Since 2019, the rate of emergency rate visits by minors for mental health crises has increased by nearly 40%, according to Damon.

“The number of kids actually accessing care is not really increasing … which tells you that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface that often doesn’t get addressed until it’s at a very serious crisis point,” Damon said. 

Damon says tackling these disparities will require partnerships between health care providers, the business community and schools. He thinks getting more mental health care services directly in schools would help reach the children that fall through the cracks of existing systems. 

“You and I get up in the morning and we go to work. Kids get up and go to school. And we’ve got to meet them where they are,” Damon said. 

In recognition of this need, the Mississippi Department of Education recently put out a request for proposals for a state agency or state hospital to deliver telehealth equipment and access to health care providers to public schools. The grant will be funded by federal COVID-19 relief dollars, according to MDE.

The Department is also partnering with The University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for the Advancement of Youth to provide support to teachers in recognizing behavioral and mental health issues in students along with providing counseling to students who are referred. 

The project recently began in Jefferson County School District and the Achievement School District, which encompasses Yazoo and Humphreys counties. 

Teachers in the two districts have indicated to the CAY team their students are being affected by  community violence, disruptive behaviors in the classroom, grief and loss related to COVID-19, anxiety and depression and issues around cyberbullying.

“It (the pandemic) hugely impacted mental health … We’ve seen a huge increase in anxiety and depression in kids of all ages, but certainly the middle school up through the teen group has really been heavily impacted,” said Dr. Susan Buttross, professor of child development at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and an overseer of the Teaching Educators About Child Behavioral Health (TEACH) Program.

The program’s team is made up of Buttross, a pediatrician, and child clinical psychologists, licensed professional counselors and a family nurse practitioner. 

Achievement School District Superintendent Jermall Wright Credit: Jermall Wright

The superintendents of both districts said they have seen an increase in mental health issues among their students – and more resources are needed.

“We can’t just try to accelerate learning without also dealing with some of the issues these students are dealing with,” said Jermall Wright, superintendent of the Achievement School District. 

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.