By Shannon Contreras
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and there's never been a more critical time to talk about what we can do to help kids who are struggling with mental health issues as they navigate a post-pandemic world that might not look the same as it did before.
We talked to Ashley Hogan, a licensed mental health professional from Integral Care’s Safe Landing Program (a pilot program that focuses on children in foster care), about the mental health challenges all kids are facing right now, and how those challenges are magnified for kids in the foster care system. Every day, Ashley provides mental health therapy to children ranging from 4-18 years old who are in foster care placements or staying at CPS offices awaiting a new placement. She says that many of the biggest mental health struggles that kids are having stem from isolation and lack of socialization with other peers.
"It’s been very hard for kids to be home all the time, especially foster kids who might not be in a permanent place."
“With many kids not being in school, they are not getting the social and emotional development that they would normally get from being around their peers. Without that day-to-day interaction, sometimes kids lose those basic social skills. It’s been very hard for kids to be home all the time, especially foster kids who might not be in a permanent place. All kids struggled with seeing friends through a screen just as much as adults did,” she tells us.
For the kids that Ashley works with who are sleeping in CPS offices, the trauma they have already faced continues to be compounded each day.
As kids started returning to in-person school, Ashley said the tension and anxiety levels were still high. “Once kids did start going back to school, it wasn’t how they had left it. There are multitudes of rules and restrictions, and that caused a lot of anxiety for kids. I definitely noticed more trouble with self-regulation—I think kids would be so cooped up and worked up, they were unable to get their energy out, which made it way harder for them to regulate their emotions once they returned to school.”
For the kids that Ashley works with who are sleeping in CPS offices, the trauma they have already faced continues to be compounded each day. “Life is pretty chaotic, and there’s a lot of putting out fires. Most kids are in some state of crisis when they arrive, and they’re stuck there for an indefinite time. This leads to a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. It is really hard for them to stay motivated to work a program, go to school, and do normal things with so much hanging over their head. And with so much being virtual, there’s an even greater lack of connection. It’s a strange transient feeling of not having a space to just “be” and decompress.
"I can understand why kids in that position would feel like giving up and not care anymore. The uncertainty of not knowing when you’ll be moved while you’re already dealing with so much trauma is really overwhelming."
When people say that kids are sleeping in offices, I don’t think people realize it IS an office. It has an acoustic ceiling, no windows, and just a small mattress. It is definitely an environment with a lack of stimulation— which can cause kids to act out. I can understand why kids in that position would feel like giving up and not care anymore. The uncertainty of not knowing when you’ll be moved while you’re already dealing with so much trauma is really overwhelming.”
Helping Kids Build Resilience
Ashley has lots of tips on how people in children’s lives can help them build resilience during these challenging times. “Empathy is so important. Connecting with kids and sharing your own experiences in the pandemic is a great way to connect and make them feel heard. It’s been hard for everyone, and it helps kids to see that ‘it’s not just me.’ It’s also so important to encourage kids to keep connecting with friends. Finding ways to help kids build connections is essential for kids as life opens back up. Kids will need to learn how to connect with people again, and parents and caregivers can support resilience building by helping children to be around each other in a safe way. Before the Fall, children need to get used to socialization again. Some activities that can help may be enrolling kids in camp or taking them to the park. They need to be in those uncomfortable positions again so they can learn to make friends and pick up on social cues.”
"It’s important to hold space for being upset, but also being optimistic—it’s all a balance and it’s up to us as adults to be there for kids, especially right now."
Ashley is adamant that resilience can be taught and is hopeful that kids coming out of the pandemic can overcome their mental health challenges with the right support. “People assume that kids and teens will just know how to eventually be resilient—but we need to teach them these skills. We need to give kids permission to be upset and not be okay. We’re all struggling. It’s important to hold space for being upset, but also being optimistic—it’s all a balance and it’s up to us as adults to be there for kids, especially right now.”
You can be there for a child who needs you by getting involved with CASA! Join our growing community of dedicated advocates today.
2021 May Advocacy Mental Health