Thursday, January 20, 2022

We Just Don't Yet Know

Richard Becker

The children we are teaching in our preschools today do not remember a time when there wasn't a pandemic. Wearing a mask to go out in public is similar to having to wear pants, an annoying, but apparently necessary convention. Keeping one's distance is as natural (or unnatural depending on the child) as not hitting or not snatching things from the hands of others. Washing hands was already something they did more frequently than most adults. And the open-closed-open-closed pattern of school is new for us adults, but that's just the way school has "always" been for these youngest citizens.

Many of us are concerned about the children's mental health through all of this, and rightly so. This generation is having a different school experience than past generations, so it stands to reason that there will likely be different outcomes, perhaps horrible ones. Indeed, these kids are having a different life experience. We all are. And it's still all too new to have the data we need to tell whether or not our worst mental health fears (or hopes) have been realized.

Experts are penning articles warning us about the mental health harm, but if you read them, you find they are mostly based on anecdotes and fear, both valid bits of data that might point us in the right direction, but hardly conclusive evidence. That said, there is little doubt that some children have been harmed. Many have lost parents, for instance. At the same time there is also little doubt that others are thriving in the current state of things. I expect that families who have managed to simply opt out by homeschooling or unschooling over the past couple years tend to have children who are weathering this, on average, better than others, but that's just a prejudice I have, a theory that may or may not wind up being supported by data. 

I also know that many adults are suffering from increased rates of anxiety and depression right now, probably at rates that exceed those of children, but again, it's just a theory.

I mean, after all, it's not as if the "before times" weren't incredibly stressful for a lot of us. We were already experiencing historic levels of mental illness in young children. So it's completely possible that not being in school is actually improving their overall mental health. I'm not saying this is true. I'm also not denying that the pandemic experience has been a tragedy for many. What I am saying is that all we can see are the tips of a few of the waves that may or may not indicate what we think they indicate.

For instance, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published an article that found that  teen emergency room presentations for self-harm, overdose, and hospital admissions from both have decreased by nearly 20 percent during the pandemic. That doesn't prove anything, but it is clear that something has changed, in this narrow case, for the better.

And this isn't the only data to suggest that the pandemic has actually been a good thing for older children inclined toward self-harm and suicide. This study found that acute mental health ER admissions did not increase during the first 12 months of the pandemic. This one finds that the frequency with which youth were prescribed psychiatric medications has fallen since the beginning of the pandemic. The CDC reports that for the first time in history, kids died of suicide during school months at the same rate as summer months, in other words, dramatically fewer.

This, of course, doesn't tell the whole story, although suicide and self-harm rates have long been considered pretty reliable leading indicators of increased stress and declining mental health. It's possible that there are other factors at work here, but my point is that we simply cannot make a blanket statement that the pandemic and the resulting chaos in our schools is harming our children's mental health.

There is no doubt that the pandemic and our response to it has caused a great deal of pain for a lot of people, including children. Some of that was unavoidable, like with other natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, although we could have planned better. And I'm certain that we, as a society, are suffering from some self-inflicted wounds, but it is not at all certain that it has damaged an entire generation.

Indeed, a lower teen suicide rate could be telling us something, particularly about the institution of schooling. If it spikes when we return to "normal," will the same experts who are bemoaning school disruptions take note?

As an educator, I'm interested in lessons learned. The pandemic presents us with an opportunity to take a long hard look at what school really does to children, both good and bad. It makes me a little sick to think that today's children are accidental guinea pigs in this accidental experiment, but then again, that's always the plight of all of us, no matter when we were born. We are all always guinea pigs in this experiment of life. We fret and worry and hope, but we never really know the impact of anything until it's behind us. That's the nature of data: it is always a sign from the past that may or may not signal the future.

One thing I do know, however, is that this generation will be different. Every generation is. We just don't yet know what that difference is.


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