SAN DIEGO – School counselor Bonnie Hayman is charged with taking care of 1,100 middle-school kids and almost 100 staff during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Hayman, who works at the currently closed La Mesa Arts Academy in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, is seeing up close how months of school closures, isolation and pandemic-induced stress are harming children.
Student anxiety and depression have been rising at the school. Teachers tell her about students who have lost family members to COVID-19, who don't have enough food to eat or who were crying or looking tired during a Zoom class.
Hayman knows of about 10 students who have landed in the emergency room or mental-health programs for crises such as panic attacks or expressing suicidal thoughts.
Meanwhile, she has been hearing from parents that beds in mental-health programs for children are full.
"Parents are having a really difficult time when they even approach their healthcare system to get counseling or support," she said. "There just isn't enough."
Mental health was already a crisis for children before the pandemic, said Sandy Mueller, senior director of behavioral health at Rady Children's Hospital. COVID-19 has only made it worse.
"The isolation ... of being at home, family stressors or personal stressors without the formal or informal network they received at the school is a huge barrier and is creating a chronic problem for kids," Mueller said.
One of the biggest ways the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis for children is it has immersed them even more in the virtual world, Mueller said. Not only are they taking classes online, they are spending their time in isolation with social media, which breeds anxiety and low self-esteem — especially in young people, she said.
"They're living in a cyberworld, 100 percent cyberworld now," Mueller said. "Their socialization is cyber. The messaging they're receiving about the safety or wellness of the community is cyber. It's all one-sided information."