Q&A: Kids are hitting ‘Pandemic Wall’ — here’s how to tell and what you can do

CarePlus NJ’s Arlia: Children’s brains ‘have been overtaxed for too long, causing chronic stress and feelings of loss’

Increased stress, fatigue, dread and a growing sense of loss — often accompanied by signs of depression. Most parents have seen it in their kids, and likely have been seeing it for some time.

Jamie Lynn Arlia, vice president of children & family services for CarePlus NJ, an integrated primary and behavioral health service for adults and children in northern New Jersey, said these feelings are quite common.

Arlia says there is a term for it: the “Pandemic Wall.”

If you or someone you know needs help:

  • CarePlus NJ provides Children’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Services, 24/7 crisis intervention and stabilization for children and youth in Bergen County. These services can be accessed at 877-652-7624.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

“The term ‘Pandemic Wall’ is referring to the phenomenon of cognitive overload that many developmental psychologists believe children and youth are experiencing a year into the pandemic,” she said. “In other words, children’s capacity to manage change and disappointment has been exceeded, and they are unable to regulate their thoughts, feelings and emotions in response to ever-changing deviation from their expected templates for normalcy.”

Arlia said it’s clear children and teens are experiencing a greater mental health burden and demonstrating higher risk behaviors than pre-pandemic.

“Plainly, their brains have been overtaxed for too long, causing chronic stress and feelings of loss,” she said. “In response, many youth are experiencing conditions related to learned helplessness. They may feel cornered, and as if they have no sense of control, no matter what they do.”

Arlia answered a number of questions on the issue. Here are her thoughts, edited for space and clarity:

ROI-NJ: Talk more about why the isolation that came with COVID-19 is having such a tremendous behavioral health impact.

Jamie Lynn Arlia: We hypothesize that quarantine conditions created a ‘pressure cooker’ environment for many families, and health and economic stressors ‘turned up the heat,’ so to speak, while a cut-off from social connections and other recreation and relationships prevented an outlet for mounting pressure. Further, we believe that many family members delayed seeking help, either due to prioritizing basic needs and/or due to their own stress; or because they believed the pandemic would end and things would ‘return to normal.’

As the pandemic continued for longer than reasonably expected, the pressure cookers are boiling over, lids are popping off and folks are now in full-blown crisis.

ROI: What are the warning signs parents should be looking for?

JLA: Depressive and anxious feelings are common reactions, as are outward oppositional behaviors, such as refusing to do schoolwork, leaving the house without permission and using substances. Suicidal ideation and self-injurious behaviors may be consequences of those feelings.

ROI: How can you tell if this is reaction to COVID, as opposed to general behavioral changes expected from teenagers?

JLA: General warnings signs include major deviations in behavior from the person’s ‘baseline’ behavior, such as dramatic changes in sleep and eating patterns, desire to socialize, ability to care for one’s space/hygiene and school participation and performance. If a child who is usually very talkative becomes suddenly very quiet, and unwilling to speak, this is a major change. If the child was always on the quieter side and preferred to play alone and not have many friends, and functioning at home and school remains constant, this is not necessarily a cause for concern.

That being said, adolescents are expected to shift more toward friends and away from family as a way of asserting independence; however, a complete cut-off and refusal to speak to family members or parents would be a concern. If a youth or child talks about suicide, it should be taken seriously, and professional help is indicated.

ROI: Most are feeling — hoping — that, with the increased vaccination rates, many of the isolation requirements will go away. The question is: Is there the potential for prolonged mental health effects due to the pandemic?

JLA: We know that adverse childhood experiences, what we call ACEs, can have long-term effects on children’s mental and physical health far into their future as adults. Prolonged chronic stress, loss of social connection and grieving loved ones certainly fall into the category. Some family issues we have encountered that initiated, or were exacerbated, during the pandemic include domestic violence, neglect, child physical abuse and sexual abuse.

ROI: How much of an increase in need for services are you seeing?

JLA: In March, we served our highest number of youth in the program’s 18-year history, over 230. We are regularly serving about 40-50 new youth and families a week, meeting them at their home or through telehealth, and the youth we serve are generally demonstrating higher risk behaviors than pre-pandemic. This is also exhibited by increasing youth psychiatric hospitalizations and ER visits nationwide.

ROI: Last question, explain how and where the Children & Family Services Division of CarePlus NJ works — and how people in crisis can reach you.

JLA: We offer programmatic and clinical support embedded into schools, which help students feel safe and successful in their educational setting. These services have been available during the pandemic and have been offered in school districts located in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset and Union counties.

We also provide Children’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Services, which is 24/7 crisis intervention and stabilization for children and youth in Bergen County. These services can be accessed at 877-652-7624.