LAND O' LAKES, Fla. - This fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
"As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic," the groups said in a statement issued in October.
It's a problem of which Eliza Smith said she is well aware.
"I personally deal with depression and anxiety," said Smith, a 16-year-old student at Land O' Lakes High School. "I know a lot of my friends who do struggle with depression, anxiety, ADHD, ADD, and I really wanted to have a platform where we can spread awareness because there's a lot of stereotypes and stigma around mental health."
That's how "Be Bold, Be Beautiful, Be You" was created. It's a podcast hosted by Smith that features interviews with friends and family on mental health topics.
"I kind of want to open a ground for conversation and help others and encourage others to get help and start those conversations," said Smith.
Smith allowed Spectrum Bay News 9 to sit in on a recording of a recent episode. She interviewed her friend, Jana Swank, 17, who told Smith she's dealt with anxiety since middle school.
"One thing I try to emphasize is that anxiety, depression, having a mental health illness doesn't look the same for everybody. So, tell me what it's like, personally, for you," Smith asked during the recording.
"I don't really like speaking to people I don't know. I'm pretty sure you saw this, but the first day of school when I saw you guys, I didn't talk to you...I just kind of kept to myself," Swank responded.
After the recording, Swank said it wasn't a hard decision to share her own mental health journey.
"When she told me, I was like, 'I'd love to be on. I'd love to share my experiences and share what I've gone through', because sharing things can help people," she said.
"To have people like Jana on here and have everyone that I've had so far, it's truly heartwarming, and I truly empathize with them because we don't get to hear point of views very often and opinions from our friends," Smith said.
Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, co-director of the Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital Center for Behavior Health, said when it comes to mental health and young people in Tampa Bay, her team is seeing a significant increase in conditions including anxiety, depression, disruptive behaviors, sleep problems, overdoses, suicide attempts, and eating disorders. Like the advocacy groups that issued the national emergency declaration, Katzenstein said the pandemic seems to have exacerbated a problem that was already growing before COVID.
"We knew that we did not have enough providers both for psychiatry and medication management, as well as therapists and counselors and psychologists to meet the mental health needs of our children, adolescents prior to the pandemic. Then, on top of that, we put the uncertainty that came with the pandemic, the ever-changing information, and also the additional stressors for our families and for our kids, both as it relates to potentially financial needs, the loss of a parent, changes in schooling and the lack of social contacts," said Katzenstein.
AAP, AACAP, and CHA said in their statement that they were calling on action from policymakers and advocates. Some of the steps they want to see taken include making sure there's equal access to telehealth services, increasing implementation and sustainable funding for school-based mental health care, and speeding up the adoption of integrated mental health care in primary care pediatrics. Katzenstein also noted the importance of mental health care within primary care settings. She said there need to be efforts to reduce the stigma young people face when seeking out mental health supports and to bolster the workforce in this field.
"As a part of this emergency declaration, I hope it has brought awareness to both the state and federal legislatures to be able to recognize the importance and the need for children's mental health interventions, and along with that, the necessary supports in terms of financial and advocacy in order to bring all of those ideas to life and prevent future mental health concerns," Katzenstein said.
Smith said she would like to see more on-campus mental health resources in schools and educational programs for faculty, staff, and students to teach how to recognize warning signs that someone may be struggling with a mental issue and how to properly respond.
"It's important that when we do have these resources, that we utilize them and empathize, if that makes sense, because there could be a kid in that class who needs to know this, and for somebody to make a joke out of it is unacceptable," Smith said.
In addition to the podcast, Smith said she used her reign as Miss Land O' Lakes Teen USA 2021 to bring awareness to mental health issues, as well.
"I'm glad that she's taken her own experiences and she's given it to the world," said Smith's mother, Bhuneeta Parsan. "She doesn't sugar coat it or do what a lot of people do and lie and make it seem that it's not what it is. She's honest, she's open, she's - 'Here. This is me. Take it or leave it'."
"Younger kids -- teenagers, adolescents -- we can experience these things," Smith said of mental health concerns. "A lot of people tend to brush it aside and say, 'Oh, you're just a child, your problems don't matter.' But it's so important to recognize that their problems do matter."
Anyone interested in potentially appearing as a guest on an upcoming episode of Smith's podcast can fill out this form.
Katzenstein recommends parents spend time talking with their kids everyday away from electronic devices to check in. She said signs of trouble in preschool and early elementary-aged children can include changes in sleep, appetite, more irritability, tantrums, and not being engaged in social interactions. For middle school-aged children and teens, she said to watch out for some of those same signals, as well as more hopelessness, crying, and anxiety, as well as losing interest in activities they once enjoyed or changes in self hygiene. Katzenstein said if children and teens say they're having thoughts of harming themselves or others, it's time to seek support.
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Warning signs that someone is considering suicide may include showing rage or talking about seeking revenge, talking about being a burden to others, and looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online for or buying a gun. Learn more here.