Tennesseans weathered literal and figurative storms throughout 2020, from deadly tornadoes to the harrowing COVID-19 pandemic that continues to surge, further taxing our psyche and economic recovery even as promising vaccine news develops. While much is being said of the toll borne by adults—emotional stress, economic uncertainty, and higher physical health risks, etc. especially for older adults with complicated and/or co-morbid health conditions—we must not overlook the impact these events have on child and adolescent wellness.
We teach our children “good sandbox” behavior—to share their toys and play together. Children thrive in stable, predictable environments. COVID-19 turns that world upside down. Now they learn to keep playthings to themselves, to social distance. Schools fluctuate between in-class and at-home virtual learning as infection rates dictate. Extracurricular activities are, at best, disrupted if not altogether cancelled. Holidays and birthdays look and feel different. Grandparents and friends aren’t seen as often, if at all. How are our children and adolescents making sense of our current world?
TIME magazine recently stated, “If COVID-19 is sparing most kids’ bodies, it’s not being so kind to their minds. Living in a universe that is already out of their control, they can become especially shaken when the (truths) they count on to give the world order get blown to bits.”
Fortunately, Tennessee lawmakers have tuned in to this rising concern. Legislation was passed requiring health insurers to cover virtual care the same as in-person care into 2022. That has allowed my employer Centerstone, a community behavioral health nonprofit, to provide 400,000 services to Tennesseans via telehealth since March. For example, our school-based therapists, who normally help students with behavioral, emotional or social problems face-to-face on 350 campuses, are effectively connecting with kids by tele-video to ensure continuity of care.
Further, new 2020 funding from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) has placed a school-based behavioral health liaison in every county across our state. These master’s level therapists consult teachers to enhance learning environments for children at-risk for Serious Emotional Disturbance and substance use disorders. They strengthen that vital community connection between our public schools and families.
Finally, Tennessee’s Behavioral Health Safety Net program has expanded to include uninsured children. Officials recently appropriated $7.6 million to directly fund mental health services for ages three to 17. In 2019, Centerstone provided much-needed care to nearly 6,000 adults through Safety Net. The opportunity to serve uninsured children as well—especially in light of rising unemployment—will be truly life-changing to our state’s youngest demographic.
I’m truly grateful for these wise investments in the mental health of children and adolescents across Tennessee led by Governor Bill Lee and TDMHSAS Commissioner Marie Williams. Experts report it is crucial to care for the psychosocial and behavioral needs of vulnerable youth during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The research is indisputable—traumas endured in childhood often have impact throughout a person’s lifespan, affecting both mental and physical wellbeing. Here in the Volunteer State, it’s good to know there are caring policy makers, informed providers and increasing resources to combat the crisis at hand.
Dr. Bob Vero is Regional CEO of Centerstone (centerstone.org), overseeing the not-for-profit healthcare organization’s operations in Tennessee and Georgia.