I am writing in support of the growing number of Rochester families fighting for the option to return their students to their classrooms. I am a licensed psychologist, who owns and operates a mental health clinic in downtown Rochester. Since March 15, 2020, my heart has been hurting, as I have watched the mental health toll of the pandemic play out on children. The Task Forces … at federal, state, and local levels … were largely developed without any mental health professionals, and with seemingly no concern for children’s mental health. I feel compelled to speak up.

At this very moment, child mental health resources in Rochester are strained beyond capacity. I and many other providers have been forced to shut our doors (Zoom rooms) to new patients, due to a sheer explosion in numbers. The fact this will likely remain the case through the next 6 months is both unprecedented and concerning. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, between April and October 2020, US hospitals saw a 24% increase in mental health emergency visits for children ages 5 to 11, and a 31% increase for children ages 12 to 17. I guarantee the numbers have only increased, and I fear for the months of April thru June, when suicide rates are historically highest. Locally, youths directed to the emergency room often face long waiting lists for aftercare, with some facilities not even maintaining waitlists. This is a crisis situation.

The tolls of social isolation are well-defined, serious, and long-lasting. Decades of research have given us a clear understanding that inadequate social interaction can lead to permanent changes in the structure of the brain ... such as a reduction in the size and density of the hippocampus, the region of the brain most involved in learning and memory. Zoom therapy sessions have allowed providers to see exactly what is happening at many of the homes of the tweens and teens who should be in classrooms. Week after week, we find patients sitting in dark bedrooms, shades drawn, textbooks strewn around. Some report not really leaving their bedrooms, or only for a few minutes, throughout the entire day. Many report spending all but an hour or two of their waking moments in front of a screen. This is unacceptable, and will leave long-lasting, possibly permanent, scars. And these are the children receiving help!

The kids I worry about most are the ones we are not seeing. Because I only accept private insurance, my own patients generally have employed, well-educated, English-speaking parents, with resources to pay for therapy. They have health insurance. Their parents are not forced to work two or three fulll-time jobs, to make ends meet. They have food in their pantries, and ample transportation and money to buy more, if it runs out. They are not being physically abused, with no one around to see their bodies and faces, and to check on their welfare. Many have financial means to be in extracurricular activities, which means they at least see some friends and teammates.

While I do not, in any way, deny the seriousness of COVID-19, it is time for mental health to be put on the stage it deserves. Medical professionals and government officials have made a clear case for how safe schools can be, when proper PPE and other protective measures are in place. My husband and I have three children in a larger private school in Rochester and feel very fortunate that proper policies have kept them in classrooms 5 days a week, since September. It is time for ALL Rochester families to have this option.

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Patricia H. Price, PsyD, LP, Rochester