Allan Gold, Ph.D.

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 After speaking with School Psychologist Dr. Allan Gold, Ph.D., we have included the Q&A that was conducted to gain further perspective into issues that children and parents due to the global pandemic of COVID-19.

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Q: How do you think we should combat mental illness in children due to the backlash of the pandemic?

A: I believe that counseling and school psychology services in schools is a very effective way of helping children deal with potential or actual mental illness. The more a counselor or psychologist can connect with young students, present as open, warm, a good listener, empathic, even funny, the more likely mental health providers can be destigmatized. Now that most students are back to school in person, and even going maskless, there is more of a return to normalcy. However, because of the distance learning and the pandemic, there is a greater degree of anxiety and delays in social development. Talking with a counselor or psychologist and participating in social skills and friendship groups to learn effective and age appropriate social skills can be very helpful.

Q: How are you managing the need for your services in this current climate?

A: The most challenging aspect of my current job is managing the number of students who are experiencing meanness and bullying. I am constantly dealing with students from third grade through eighth grade who complain about mean things said to them, exclusion from games and groups, gossip and rumors, and low self-esteem resulting from these situations. In addition to my time spent assessing students for learning disabilities, I spend a good deal of time working with students individually and in small groups to try to talk out disputes. I find that for the older students who communicate only by text or online, they really need to meet face-to-face to fully understand each other’s points of view, complaints and to effectively resolve the problems.

Q:What would you say is the most common complaint of the children in regard to the pandemic? What age group do you see suffering the most?

A: As I said in the previous answer, the most common complaints are about social interactions.  I try to figure out what is causing this – anxiety, less experience in solving social problems, the unlimited access to social media and ability to post just about anything, as well as the more general political climate in this country.  The past five years of vitriolic talk and derogation of people based on personality, race, religion, ethnicity, etc. filter down to kids and they copy and role model what they are exposed to.

In addition in my high socio-economic school district, students experience an undue amount of stress to perform well in school, get into “good” private high schools, and even worry about college when they are in middle school.  The pressure sometimes comes from parents, but often the pressure is internal and students are highly competitive academically, in sports, and socially.

I see an increase in the suffering as students move up the grades, so it is more intense in middle school, but I see it also in the lower grades.  Some younger children still worry about getting sick, and worry about their parents or grandparents, though that has lessened somewhat in the past six months.

Q: What advice or strategies do you give to your kids to help them work through their most difficult issues?

A: As I said, my usual strategy to deal with social issues is to get students to talk with each other, explore the sources of their disputes or hurt feelings, be very specific about what is bothering one another, have them compliment each other, particularly if the dispute is between friends, and continue to meet with them to see if the situation has improved.

For students who are experiencing anxiety or stress, I try to help them identify what is causing these feelings and try to help put the school events in perspective.  One of my favorite strategies is to have students rate things on a 1 to 10 scale, starting with relatively innocuous activities or even foods.  Then I ask them to think of the worst thing that could happen to someone they love and they will say “die.”  Then I’ll ask them to rate the things that are really bothering them compared to that awful “1.”  Most kids will understand that while events can be annoying, no one is dying and they can begin to develop other ways to solve the problems.

I also work with kids on improving their self-esteem, but building a “self-esteem bank,” where every evening they think of something they’ve done that day that they feel good about or are proud, even small things like helping someone out. This can build some positive feelings about themselves when they or others say mean or disparaging things about them.  I help them develop positive self-talk or internal voices that can be helpful and encouraging rather than putting themselves down.

I try to emphasize that they will get through these situations and that they can build a personal history, so that in the future when something troubles them, they know that they will have the resilience to get through the situation.  I often share my own experiences to show that I went through similar situations and made it to adulthood feeling good about myself.

Q:What do you think we as a society can do to help mitigate the mental health crisis that the pandemic has caused?

A: At this point, this is a very difficult question to answer.  This society has a lot more to fix than the effects of the pandemic.  The political divide in this country is toxic.  People are not listening to each other; there is so much misinformation in the media and many politicians (I have to say mostly of one party) are awful role models for having rational discussions.

What may be helpful is to try to protect young people from exposure to the media and to limit use of social media in young kids.  Parents need to watch what they say, correct mean and derogatory behavior that they observe in their kids, and role model rational responses to personal and even political situations where they investigate accurate date, listen to both sides of an argument, ask questions, and not just dismiss other people.  This is an extremely challenging time for not only children, but adults who are not certain where this country is going.  The more that prominent people can at least model respectful behavior and avoid negative comments about others, the greater the chance that kids will follow.  It is also important that parents and families direct children’s energy and even anger to make our society and the world a better place, helping poor people, being kind, donating money or services to help people.  Young people have energy and idealism and that needs to be channeled away from focusing only on their own work and social relationships, but to promote policies and actions that will benefit everyone.

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