Charlotte’s Hidden Crisis: The importance of mental health in our children

As part of Channel 9′s ongoing commitment to mental health awareness, we’re exploring the impact the pandemic has had on children and teens.

One in six children have experienced a mental health disorder, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“The motto, ‘it’s OK to not be OK,’ makes sense. It’s OK to seek out help,” said Rafael Rosado, who lost his 19-year-old son to suicide in 2021.


According to a 2021 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

Before the pandemic, mental health was getting worse among high school students, according to prior CDC data.

The role anxiety & depression plays in mental health

Occasionally being sad or feeling hopeless is a part of every child’s life. However, some children feel sad or uninterested in things that they used to enjoy, or feel helpless or hopeless in situations they are able to change. When those feelings become persistent, they may be caused by depression, according to the CDC.

It’s the same with fears and worries. When it starts to interfere with school, home or play activities, a child could be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

According to data from the CDC, 9.4% of children ages 3-17 (approximately 5.8 million) were diagnosed with anxiety in 2016-2019. And 4.4% of children ages 3-17 (approximately 2.7 million) were diagnosed with depression during the same time frame.

Dr. Catherine Sauls Ohmstede, a pediatrician with Novant Health, told Channel 9′s Damany Lewis that they have seen an increase in visits for anxiety and depression in 2022 compared to 2019.

How school impacts kids’ mental health

It’s not just physical or medical conditions that cause anxiety in children.

In recent weeks, Channel 9 saw a rash of threats of violence against local schools. Students were evacuated to football fields and both students and parents were understandably worried, even though no credible threats were found.

Anchor Scott Wickersham spoke to a child psychiatrist about the toll that can take on our children after what’s already been a particularly challenging time.

“Many young people are distressed. They’re either really scared and worried and anxious, or they’re feeling down and depressed,” said Dr. Gary Maslow, a Duke Health Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. “And then you get a bomb threat or hear of a school shooting and so on, I think that’s our task -- is how to create communities that where kids feel safe.”

Parents and school staff reassuring kids that school is safe can help as long as it truly is safe. Some parents told Channel 9 that they wanted to keep their kids home for a while, but Maslow said if the schools are safe, children should go back to school.

Maslow said avoiding something can give it more power to create future anxiety for children. He said the partnership between home and school is really important for the mental well-being of students.

Children and social media

It’s important to recognize how kids use social media to express themselves and keep in touch with friends, but it also poses unique societal pressures and safety challenges.

From Instagram to TikTok, Snapchat and a new one, BeReal, social media matters to Generation Z.

Older generations didn’t grow up with social media, so it can be difficult for parents to rationalize their child’s use of the apps. Channel 9 talked to Justin Perry, a licensed clinical social worker on how parents and children can relate to each other.

“Really helping our kids develop literacy. A social literacy and understanding that some of this is not as authentic as we think. Saying ‘we are going to do this as a family’ versus, ‘I’m going to tell you to do this, but I’ll operate in a totally different way,’” Perry said.

Here are some tips for a healthier relationship with social media:

  • Reduce your screen time.
  • Unfollow or mute people whose content you don’t want to see.
  • Limit how many sources you follow.
  • Work on your mindset.

The importance of sleep in kids’ mental health

For students, physical and mental well-being go hand in hand. There are five basic needs for kids to maintain their physical health: Food, exercise, immunizations, a healthy living environment and good sleep.

According to the CDC, 70% of high schoolers don’t get the eight to 10 hours of sleep they need.

Lily Renfrow is a ninth grader at Ardrey Kell High School and said if she is in bed by 10 p.m., she will get seven and a half hours of sleep.

“I have biology first block, so it’s hard sometimes if you’re reading a long passage to comprehend what you’re reading when you’re tired,” Renfrow.

The American Academy of Pediatrics blames early school bell times for kids’ lack of sleep. It recommends middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This fall, California became the first state to mandate that later start time.

According to various studies, the benefits can include better mental and physical health, improved academic outcomes, reduced risk of car crashes and less tardiness.

“In teenage years, it’s recommended sleep needs are eight to 10 hours per night -- every night, seven nights a week,” said Dharmesh Suratwala, a pediatric sleep specialist at Levine Children’s Hospital.

He said sleep plays a vital role in brain growth development. When children don’t get enough of it, he said it can hurt their physical and mental health.

“You’ll start to notice depressive moods, not feeling happy and just tired, cranky,” Suratwala said. “You just don’t have the motivation to do it. Anxiety kicks in, high-risk-taking behavior kicks in... more likely to experiment with substances. I may be more likely to start with caffeine.”

Suratwala said teenagers are biologically wired to stay up later.

Opponents of later school start times said it could cause logistical issues with bus routes, parent schedules and other activities.

Advice for parents

Once a parent or guardian has identified that their child needs help, the next step is starting a conversation with them. Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis spoke with a licensed clinical social worker who shared valuable tips for parents.

“I think it’s important to normalize that we have a range of feelings and that sometimes we’re going to be happy, sometimes we’re going to be excited,” Perry said. “But also, sometimes we’re going be sad, sometimes we’re going to be hurt, angry, embarrassed and all of those are OK.”

As children grow older, Perry said parents need to talk to them about paying attention to when their feelings change and to let them know they can talk to them or to other trusted adults when they’re having a hard time.

>> Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis speaks with Perry about more tips and advice for parents here.

(WATCH BELOW: Here’s how CMS is ensuring students have mental health resources they need)