Better World

Shootings, lockdowns, anxiety: Kids are not alright – but they’re working on it

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On the morning of July 4, 2022, 10-year-old Mason Tepper was in the car with his family when ambulances went flying past with sirens blaring. By the time they got to his grandmother’s house, about 50 miles from their suburban Chicago home, his father, Joshua, knew a horrific shooting had occurred at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park.

The Teppers live in the neighboring community of Deerfield. Mason had gone to the parade in past years and knew people who were there that day. But as Joshua Tepper, a vascular and interventional radiologist, and his wife Tamara talked quietly about how to tell Mason and his younger brother, Mason piped up with the news. A friend had already texted him.

If there ever were childhood cocoons that envelop the elementary school years and protect children from life’s harsh realities, they have been punctured. The parade shooting orphaned a 2-year-old and left an 8-year-old boy paralyzed while killing seven people and wounding 48. It came just six weeks after a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and about nine months before a shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, a Christian elementary school.

Many of the nation’s children are now accustomed to monthly school lockdown drills, in which they turn off the lights and silently huddle in a corner or a closet to avoid detection by a theoretical intruder. School closings during the pandemic also left children with gaps in their social development and deeper feelings of loneliness.

These challenging times trigger anxieties – but also reveal the resilience of children and their capacity to support each other emotionally. Mason, a fifth grader who is now 11, was running for election to his school’s student council last fall when he came up with an idea: Worry-Free Wednesdays, a way to acknowledge kids’ worries and relieve them.

“Every Wednesday before school, kids can write their worry on a Post-it note and put it in a box so no one sees their worries. They’re lessening their worries by getting it out of mind and helping be positive,” said Mason, who won his election and created the box. He even made a logo with a colorful “evil eye” that symbolically wards off evil and sold T-shirts to benefit The Balance Project, a nonprofit based in Highland Park that supports mental health access and awareness.

Children take lead, provide emotional support to peers

Across the country, other pre-teens and children are creating kindness projects and getting guidance on how to talk openly to peers and adults about their feelings. Despite the political targeting of “wokeness” in some communities, schools in Texas, Florida and beyond provide emotional support for children – with the children themselves often taking the lead.

“There really is not an age group where you don’t need mental health supports and strategies,” said Nancy Lever, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health. Those strategies can and should incorporate the voices of children, she said. “We need to make sure that what we’re thinking, what we’re doing, what we’re planning fits with the actual needs of youth,” she said.

Adolescence is a tipping point for mental health. It’s notoriously a time of risky behaviors and a life stage when major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia begin to emerge. The pandemic turned up the angst: In 2021, 57 percent of high school girls reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, a steep rise from pre-pandemic findings in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

It’s harder to document what’s happening among younger kids. About half of states conduct a middle-school version of the survey, and the agency doesn’t report national data for that age group. But there are troubling signs. A study by Oregon Health & Science University found a five-fold increase in suicidal overdoses among children 10 to 12 from 2010 to 2020, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Survey of Children’s Health found a 29 percent increase in anxiety among children 17 and younger from 2016 to 2020. 

The Children’s Hospital Association reported that mental health visits for 6-to-12-year-olds doubled between 2016 and 2019. In response to concerns about child mental health, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force added a recommendation in 2022 for pediatricians to screen children for anxiety beginning at age 8. 

“The pandemic did not cause an epidemic of anxiety and depression in children, it just made it worse,” said David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who is founder and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Holly Wilcox is a psychiatric epidemiologist in the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health, specializing in suicide prevention among youth. As an adviser to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, she helped adapt an Australian program called teen Mental Health First Aid for use in the U.S. Designed as a kind of emotional CPR for ages 15 to 18 (grades 10 to 12), it teaches teens to detect mental health warning signs in their friends and classmates and how to respond.

Now she wants to start the prevention efforts earlier – in 9th-grade or even middle school. Working with 7th- and 8th-graders in two Baltimore City middle schools, she launched a pilot study of Youth Aware of Mental Health, a program that has been used and studied in several countries with teens 13 to 17. She adapted the discussion prompts and role-play scenarios to be relevant to her urban American middle-schoolers.

“We found that the students are so thirsty for conversation about mental health, and this provides a structure for how to do it in a safe way,” said Wilcox, who is a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.

At first, the kids role-play their response to a minor stress, such as classmates laughing because they have an unzipped fly or bad case of bed head. But they gradually move to more serious topics. “We want to get to kids before they have a friend in crisis,” said Wilcox. “If they know how to navigate these life-and-death situations, I believe they will carry forward these skills that could be lifesaving in the future.”

‘Helping skills,’ going Zen and talking it out

Other programs around the country tap into the capacity of children to give solace and advice. In Connecticut, the Wilton Youth Council created an after-school program called PeerConnection that uses the Natural Helpers curriculum – a program created by a Washington state high school in 1979 – to give middle schoolers “helping skills” that they can take into their everyday interactions.

Students invited to participate already have demonstrated emotional awareness – they’re the sort of people their peers would feel comfortable talking to, said Chandra Ring, the council’s executive director. And to combat the anxiety that comes from growing up in an affluent community of high expectations, the Wilton Youth Council also offers GoZen! to help build resilience among 3rd- through 5th-graders.

The Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas worked with the Dallas-based Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to create an “Okay to Say” patch that can be earned by girls from kindergarten (Daisy Scouts) to high school (Senior and Ambassador Scouts). To get their badge, the scouts take part in activities that explore the impact of emotions and thoughts on their behavior and learn about mental health.

When schools shut down during the pandemic, Brooke Woodrow, a licensed professional counselor and mother of two in Temple, Texas, thought “Okay to Say” would be a timely project for her 5-year-old daughter Ellie, whose kindergarten started a month late. To earn the Daisy patch – a smiling cartoon sun comforting a sad-faced cloud – Ellie drew pictures of things that make her happy (like her favorite “stuffy”) and read Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster about how to ward off fears. 

She couldn’t share what she learned with her troop in person, so her mom recorded her in her bright blue Daisy smock and beanie, sitting on her Hello Kitty-themed bedspread, as she explained how mindfulness (like taking deep breaths) can help you feel calm.

Ellie is now 8, her mom is the Brownie troop leader, and her school counselor gives lessons about mental health to her class. The issues have changed; she has friendships to navigate in second grade. “If somebody is feeling bad and you have an argument, sometimes we take a break. Sometimes we talk it out,” she told MindSite News. “Sometimes I have to chase after them and tell them I’m sorry.”

On Sept. 6, 2022 – the first day Robb Elementary students returned to school in Uvalde after the shooting – Ellie wore a Girl Scout T-shirt and maroon ribbon in honor of a Girl Scout who was killed. She has gotten used to sitting in a darkened room – even turning off the tiny glowing lights on her sneakers – for her school’s monthly lockdown drills. “Our teacher usually tells us when it’s going to happen so that makes us [feel] safer,” she said.

‘I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way’

Sammie Vance of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was 8 when she heard of a way to make kids like herself feel better. At her vacation Bible school in summer 2017, she saw a video about three boys who had worked together to get a “buddy bench” for their school, a spot where kids could sit if they wanted someone to play with. Sammie knew what it felt like to be the kid standing at the edge of the playground, too shy to ask if she could join in a game.

“I thought it was just a really good idea. I mean, especially at the time, I had been lonely myself,” said Sammie. “And obviously, that was not a good feeling. I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way.”

Sammie came home and asked her mom if they could try to get a buddy bench at her school. Heidi Vance did a bit of research and discovered that if Sammie collected plastic bottle caps, a company in a nearby town could recycle them into a bench – which would be cheaper than just ordering a new one.

That simple wish – to create a safe space for lonely kids and do it in an environmentally friendly way – took on a life of its own. Sammie rallied her school and community, collecting 1,600 pounds of caps, more than enough for three benches. With the left-over caps, she helped other area schools get benches, and news of her efforts spread.

Sammie and her mom were invited to be guests on the Today show, for a feature segment called “Everyone Has a Story.” On air, the hosts announced that Walgreen’s stores in Indiana would collect caps for benches around the state; 15,000 pounds of caps became another 75 benches. Then UPS put Sammie in a national commercial and helped her ship benches to 13 more communities around the country that had collected caps. Recently, she collected enough caps to install buddy benches at most Fort Wayne parks. (All the caps have to be sorted to make sure they don’t contain metal or other contaminants that would interfere with processing machines. Lots of other people helped with that part.)

Sammie wrote a book, Inspire the World: A Kid’s Journey to Making a Difference. She received awards, gave speeches, and along the way learned to overcome her shyness. Now 14 and in 8th grade, Sammie Vance has grown the buddy bench concept into a project of Spreading Kindness, which includes 87 episodes of her Sammie Smiles podcast, in which she interviews inspiring people doing good works. Short videos she created have aired at elementary and middle schools via Be THE Voice, an anti-bullying initiative based in suburban Atlanta that helps student-led groups of all ages engage in activities that promote positivity and inclusion. 

But Sammie Vance is just one part of the story of how a buddy bench can be a tool for mental health prevention.

Ever since Christian Buck, a second-grader from York, Pennsylvania, brought the buddy bench concept to the U.S. from Germany in 2013, the benches have become fixtures at countless schools. In Collier County, Florida – the fast-growing Naples area where schools perpetually welcome newcomers and many longtime residents still struggle to recover from damage caused by Hurricane Ian – buddy benches ease anxieties. Two “friendship ambassadors” from each elementary school class are responsible for engaging anyone on a buddy bench during recess.

At Veterans Memorial Elementary School, counselor Erin Delgado makes sure everyone knows about the buddy benches. “Having the conversation about the buddy bench and friendship ambassadors definitely sparks that thought in their head [that] ‘Somebody might not have a friend and might not know what to say,’” she said. It also may encourage children to talk about their feelings or concerns – with her or with each other, she added.

Whenever 9-year-old Gabrielle (Gabby) Clerjuste sees someone who looks left out – whether they’re on the buddy bench or not – she asks them to play with her and her friends. Last year, that meant using some make-shift hand gestures to communicate with a new student who spoke only Arabic. 

About 18 percent of the students at Veterans Memorial transferred in or out last year, and an average of one new student a week has started at the school since last September, Delgado said. They may come from elsewhere in Florida or the U.S., but the school also welcomes students from Cuba, Venezuela, Guatemala and even Ukraine and Russia.

“It made me feel good that no one was getting excluded,” said Gabby, a 3rd-grade friendship ambassador. “He got along with all of us really quickly. Some of us helped him learn some words.”

Kids empowered by helping heal others

The buddy bench is more than a prop to remind kids to be kind, it also has some science behind it. A 2017 study at a Utah elementary school, for example, showed that the addition of a buddy bench reduced social isolation by as much as 24 percent.

The buddy bench also mirrors a structured mental health intervention. In 2007, Dixon Chibanda, director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI), created Friendship Benches in Zimbabwe to address depression in a region where behavioral health care is almost non-existent. Chibanda trained village health workers known as grandmothers to provide “problem-solving therapy.”

In a randomized trial involving 573 patients with depression at 24 clinics in Harare, Zimbabwe, he found that the Friendship Bench model led to significant improvement in symptoms compared with a control group that received standard care and education. A small study in rural Zimbabwe similarly showed a decline in depression and anxiety.

The novel approach to mental health treatment came to New York City in 2019, when community health centers added outdoor Friendship Benches and staffed them with people in recovery from substance use or mental health disorders.

For children, sitting on the buddy bench may just be a way to get noticed during recess – or it could ease anxiety in a deeper way. Meanwhile, the child who extends an act of kindness or peer support – whether via the buddy bench or some other outreach – also gets a mental health boost, said Schonfeld, the developmental-behavioral pediatrician, who has supported many schools and communities after major crisis events, including after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“People feel more in control and able to cope with something distressing if they’re able to help someone else. It’s empowering, it’s healing,” he said. “Peer-to-peer support allows [children] to get support and allows them to give support.”

That capacity is something Sammie Vance wants people to know about, so they don’t underestimate children. “A lot of people are like, ‘You’re really young, you can’t do this,’ but you don’t have to be an adult to make a difference,” she said. “You can be a kid, too.”

This story was produced by MindSite News, an independent, nonprofit journalism site focused on mental health.