NEWS

Pandemic Mental Health Makes It Hard to Find Therapists for Kids

Child in therapy session

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Key Takeaways

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, children continue to battle mental health challenges.
  • Experts say lack of available appointments and long wait times before seeing a therapist are the result of climbing numbers of patients.
  • Incorporating coping tools, adequate rest, and spending time with others can help children deal with the wait before receiving professional help.

Soaring inflation costs, the Russian war in Ukraine, and COVID-19 worries are significant causes of stress for many adults. While the topics and level of concern may differ, children are also dealing with stress about what's going on in their world, and the world around them. While mental health care can help kids adjust, the increased need for services has led to fewer available appointments and longer wait times.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 children deals with an emotional, mental, or behavioral disorder. Times of transition, uncertainty, and high stress can exacerbate that need. Unfortunately, only 20% of those children receive the help they need from a mental health professional.

“The pandemic negatively impacted the mental health of children and adolescents by disruptions to predictability and routine, interruptions to normal socialization and relationship experiences, increased isolation, and uncertainty, and stress on family systems; this seems to have led to even more children in need of services," explains Caroline Fulton, PsyD, a child and adolescent psychologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

Why It's Difficult To Find Therapists

With legions of people scrambling for time with a therapist, squeezing in each child, and giving them adequate time, becomes a huge problem.

Whether it's via telehealth or in-person, appointments are booked very quickly. Parents may have to call several therapists to get a time for their child, and don't always get calls back. If they get a response, considerable time can pass before an appointment is scheduled.

“Our wait is probably 2-3 months for an appointment.,” explains Mary Alvord, PhD, co-author, “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens”. “It’s a cascade [effect] of all these services cut down … and then the addition of greater demand and greater stress that has just accumulated over time. You put those together and there are long wait lists,” Dr. Alvord adds.

When children find a coveted seat in a group session or become a regular client of a therapist, they tend to stay in therapy for longer periods of time. Experts say children aren’t "graduated" from therapy at the same rate as prior to COVID-19.

“Some children may be in therapy longer due to the persistent nature of the challenges they are facing as well as the broad stress on the systems the child operates in, including their families, schools, and communities,” Dr. Fulton notes.

Mary Alvord, PhD

It’s a cascade [effect] of all these services cut down … and then the addition of greater demand and greater stress ...

— Mary Alvord, PhD

The need for help, and the inability to get it right away, can leave both children and parents in a precarious position.

How to Cope While Waiting

Waiting for a child to get the help they need can be devastating for the child and their parents.

“Parents often find it troubling to see their child struggling and not being able to get help as quickly as they would like. It’s a very helpless feeling,” states Dr. Fulton. She notes, however, there are steps caregivers can take to help the child feel less alone.

“Parents … can let the child know ways they are trying to seek help. They can also encourage the child to continue to communicate about what he or she is thinking and feeling,” Dr. Fulton notes.

There are other ways you can help improve your child's mental health and well-being in the meantime.

Caroline Fulton, PsyD

Parents often find it troubling to see their child struggling and not being able to get help as quickly as they would like.

— Caroline Fulton, PsyD

Good Sleep Hygiene

Make sure your child is getting a good night’s sleep. Normal bedtimes can help establish a sense of routine and order. “Good sleep is critical to mood and well-being. Remove technology from your child’s room at night and consider having them use a basic alarm rather than a cell phone,” advises Dr. Fulton.

Engage Socially

The pandemic lockdown kept children and their friends six feet apart and isolated for long periods of time. Children can reconnect with activities, social relationships, and sports. They can also engage socially on a family level. Make sure to spend time with your child and eat meals together as a family. Being with others promotes a feeling of belonging and a sense of well-being.

Use Coping Tools

Get Outside! Research shows exposure to nature can improve a child’s mental, behavioral, and cognitive health. Try deep breathing, and mindfulness apps to help recalibrate mood and mental health.

You can also seek out support groups and talk with your child’s pediatrician about resources. Of course, your child’s safety is the paramount concern. If your child is a danger to herself or others, call 911 and seek out emergency services.

Waiting to receive help is not easy. Encouraging your child to talk, being an active listener, and putting coping strategies to work can help put them on the path to better mental health.

What This Means For You

Mental health issues and the need for professional providers is skyrocketing. Lack of available appointments, long wait times, and persistent daily stressors make it even harder. Help your child deal with the wait to see a therapist by putting coping mechanisms to work. While mindfulness apps, being out in nature, and social reengagement may not solve every issue, those activities may be a step in the right direction on your child’s healing journey.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Children's mental health is in crisis.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving access to children's mental health care.

  3. Sleep Foundation. Children and sleep.

  4. Allen K. Do You Feel Like You Belong?. Front. Young Minds. 2020;8:99. doi:10.3389/frym.2020.00099

  5. Fyfe-Johnson AL, Hazlehurst MF, Perrins SP, et al. Nature and children’s health: A systematic review. Pediatrics. 2021;148(4):e2020049155. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-049155