New Mexico ranks as one of the states with the highest rates for parental deaths caused by the disease, with 341 children per 100,000 who have lost a caregiver due to COVID-19, according to a study
A group called the Covid Collaborative, made up of experts in health and other fields, produced a study on the mental health challenges U.S. children face after losing a caregiver due to the pandemic. Among other recommendations, the collaborative says that to identify and help the children who have lost a caregiver due to COVID-19 with both behavioral health needs and financial aid, a COVID-Bereaved Children Fund should be implemented. For children who have lost a caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the collaborative recommends the federal government create a $2 billion to $3 billion bereavement fund.
According to the study, 167,000 children nationally lost a parent or other caregiver due to the respiratory disease.
New Mexico has experienced 7,116 reported deaths due to COVID-19 over the last two years, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that people of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and have experienced higher mortality rates than white people.
The New Mexico Pediatric Society said in a news release that pediatricians are seeing a significant increase in mental health problems.
Dr. Alexandra Cvijanovich, New Mexico Pediatric Society president, told NM Political Report that without help, the negative impacts for COVID-bereaved children could reverberate for decades to come.
“We’ve got to mitigate a horrible situation; it’s incredibly challenging for our families. We need to prioritize kids. Our kids are our future. If we cannot raise healthy, well-adjusted children, we’re not going to have a healthy population in the future of our state,” she said.
Cvijanovich said that the already existing crisis in behavioral health in New Mexico will only exacerbate what she called a crisis in children losing a caregiver or family member to COVID-19 in the state.
“Mental health was in a crisis before the pandemic and with these additional stressors and deaths, it will make a bad situation even worse,” she said.
Cvijanovich said that the lack of mental health care providers in rural areas is particularly challenging and that there have been efforts to address the problem with video visits.
“But that requires internet [access] and that’s not always available in rural areas or it’s a questionable connection. It becomes frustrating for all parties involved and the care cannot proceed,” she said.
Cvijanovich said primary care doctors are having to provide “a lot of mental health care as well,” as a result.
The study also talks about a cultural divide that can occur when the grieving child is a person of color and the counselor is white. Cvijanovich said the problem “presents a big challenge not just in New Mexico,” but also elsewhere. She said many mental health providers receive training in cultural sensitivity and how to work within different cultures but, ultimately, the field needs to recruit more people of color to diversify the workforce.
The report states that if children who are experiencing grief receive help, 90 to 95 percent of those children will respond to the treatment and not experience prolonged grief. But right now there are no national or state level systems in place to identify those children and very few support services specifically tailored to help them.
Other factors contributing to the problem include the fact that the loss of a caregiver could also mean a loss in economic stability. Also, the social distancing brought on by the pandemic, plus restrictions on gatherings and the interruption of routine supports, such as in-person school, will likely add to the negative impact for children and families who experience caregiver loss. Past research indicates that a parental death coupled with a cascade of additional negative events were linked to worse outcomes for a child, according to the study.
The study recommends the federal government could help the situation by first establishing a set of protocols through various agencies and organizations that touch children’s lives routinely, such as public education and the pediatric field, to first identify the children who have lost a caregiver. Screenings should include for both prolonged grief and for complicated traumatic grief and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for grieving children.
The collaborative also recommends increased funding to community-based organizations which can then provide grief counseling to the children in need. The study also recommends more support for already existing programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , cash assistance and Medicaid.
Cvijanovich said she would most like to see schools, early childhood programs and primary care and mental health professionals all working together to form a collaborative where “communication is simplified.” She said it’s hard for families when they talk to a school counselor and hear one thing and then talk to a professional at a child grief center and hear something else.
“There are enough kids in this cohort; we need to come up with some sort of bereavement children’s fund and a bereaved multi-agency forum to improve that kind of communication so we can make the best treatment in the most convenient way for families so they can access it and professionals can access it,” she said.
But if a family needs help now, they should consult their primary care provider for help, she said.
Cvijanovich said a bereavement fund for children who have lost a caregiver is important because many have lost a caregiver who was a “primary breadwinner” for their families.
Cvijanovich said she worries about not just the adverse effects on mental health caused by grief for COVID-bereaved children, but as government programs put into place in the earlier stages of the pandemic are now ending, “we’re looking at multiplying the negative effects of a lost parent.”
She cited how adverse childhood conditions can lead to issues such as long-term health problems, such as obesity later on in life.
“We need to think in the long-term for these kids,” she said.