By Jennifer Hudson
The pandemic has taken its toll on children in our community.
I have been a pediatrician in Salisbury for 22 years and the past year and a half has been the most taxing time I have ever seen for our youth and families. The pandemic created new challenges and exacerbated ongoing challenges for the children in our community.
As the COVID-19 outbreak began and schools closed, children’s lives were uprooted and disrupted. Children were confronted with fear of the new virus, social isolation and loss of structure. Parents were faced with financial insecurity, fears for their family’s health and juggling raising their children at home and paying for childcare. The normal structure and routine in children’s lives fell apart. I saw so many kids watching TikTok or playing video games until 4 or 5 am. They were home all day and often ate and snacked. They felt isolated from their friends and faced increased family stress. All these factors created enormous health problems.
Obesity shot up. The lack of a proper sleep routine, increased stress and boredom at home all contributed. School sports closed, gyms closed and kids couldn’t run around with friends. I can look at a growth chart for so many kids and pinpoint exactly where the pandemic started when their body mass index increased dramatically. Obesity has been an ongoing challenge in pediatrics, but the pre-pandemic health improvements were lost and obesity worsened for so many children.
Poverty has always been a big problem in our community, but the pandemic made it worse for our families. The opioid crisis has escalated dramatically in recent years. During COVID, we continued to see ominous signs of this. Women with limited or no prenatal care increased. This happens a lot with maternal substance abuse, but we also saw an increase in women who are just over the line to get Medicaid and can’t afford prenatal care. Limited or no prenatal care can have a devastating effect on newborns.
Food insecurity is also an ongoing problem for families in our community, but it has also increased during the pandemic. To help address these needs, we added a social worker to our staff at Salisbury Pediatrics a few months ago. She soon started a food bank in our office to hand out boxes of food when families came to the office for appointments because of food insecurity. She has also been instrumental in helping families access multiple resources in our city.
Children’s mental health has been by far the hardest hit by the pandemic. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency for children’s mental health. It was overwhelming on the front lines. Time and again I ask a child or teenager how they are coping with the stress of the pandemic. Their eyes well with tears. Social anxiety, depression, general anxiety, self-harm (cutting), and suicidal thoughts are widespread. Quality mental health care for children has always been limited in our community. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated the crisis. Children now often wait several months to see a psychiatrist, which is unacceptable if a child or teen is in crisis. Returning to school helped a bit with a return to early bedtimes and a more routine structure, but we are continuing to deal with the lingering mental health effects of the pandemic.
The pandemic has damaged families and young people in our community. Our goal is to maximize the community resources available to our families and to make others aware of the needs of the children in our community. While COVID-19 is unlikely to go away, we can work together as a community to heal the damage done to our youth. As a pediatrician, I am honored to work in a community where people stand up for the needs of others to help another. Let’s all continue to work together to help our children and their families.
Jennifer Hudson is a pediatrician at Salisbury Pediatrics and helps run a nutrition clinic that addresses obesity in our community. She has worked with Healthy Rowan for the past few years as part of Adventure Rowan, an initiative that works with obese children and their families teaching nutrition, exercise and lifestyle changes.