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My Child Had a Mental Health Crisis in the Middle of the Pandemic & I Didn’t Know What to Do

I first noticed something was off with my then-6-year-old daughter when she came into my bedroom one night to ask me a question. She had found something sticky on her shoe, and like most kids her age, she poked and prodded it while she investigated. At some point, she decided that the spot was more foe than friend, and she retreated to the bathroom to wash her hands — but the soap and water did little to make her feel clean. “Mama,” she said through tears. “I touched something weird on my shoe and I don’t know what it is. Am I going to be okay?”

While I was able to comfort her that night, in the days and weeks that followed I was less successful. Am I going to be okay became her constant refrain, and each time she asked it seemed like she was a little less convinced by my answer.

As the days went on, I became increasingly concerned about what was going on inside my baby girl’s head. I wished her worries were as easy to fix as a scraped knee or a bumped head. At least I knew what to do then: plant a kiss wherever she was hurt and hold her until the tears stopped. I didn’t know what to do with a problem I couldn’t see. I didn’t know how to soothe a nagging question.

Then I started to question what I’d done wrong to get us here: Was I a bad mom? Did I not do enough at home to make her feel safe and secure? Was her anxiety a learned behavior she picked up from me?

By the time I realized that we needed professional help, we were barely treading water. I felt so guilty, not only about my role in causing her anxiety but because of my inability to fix it. I even developed my own personal refrain: Why can’t I fix this?

Right around the time it became clear that we needed help, I would discover that the same problem was playing out in homes across the country — we weren’t the only ones feeling the extra stress and anxiety brought on nearly three years of pandemic life. Unfortunately, that meant we were competing for an already smaller-than-expected pool of resources.

My conversation with her pediatrician’s office was a bust (they said they couldn’t help and referred me to the only resource they had a number for, who neither treated kids my daughter’s age nor accepted our insurance). Cold calling facilities ended up being a wash as well. The first glimmer of hope I found was when I reached out to her school. Her guidance counselor listened to my concerns with a kind ear and made the now obvious suggestion to call our insurance company.

The insurance company was sympathetic. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls like this,” the customer service rep told me on the phone. He spent an hour talking me through our benefits and asking me specific questions so that he could put together a list of providers. We settled on the criteria of providers currently taking new patients, treated children my daughter’s age, and specialized in anxiety. At the end of our call, he confirmed that I had received the 12-page document he emailed over and wished me luck.

I started making calls the next day, and by the time I spoke to the 15th of 75 providers, I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. Each phone call went the same way. They’d answer and I’d ask if they were accepting new patients. If they were (only a third of those first providers were), I’d ask if they took kids my daughter’s age (less than half said yes to that). Next, I’d ask about our insurance. For the handful of providers who did accept our insurance (an especially frustrating oversight, considering the list came directly from our insurance company), the waitlist was several months long. And not months until I could get her in front of a doctor, but months before I could get someone to even call back and do the intake and see if she could be seen by the staff.

After a few hours, I had to take a break and get some fresh air. I was aware that I was becoming increasingly short on the phone with the people who answered my call. My rational mind knew that it wasn’t their fault, that they were being placed in an impossible position as well, but my mom brain just couldn’t take it. My daughter was drowning, and it didn’t matter that I was screaming — there was no one around to answer our cries for help.

I struck gold somewhere around my sixth hour on the phone. A few of the offices I had called had given me referrals to other doctors who they knew had struck out on their own. “You might have better luck with these smaller, private practices,” they told me in hushed tones as they handed over cell phone numbers and again wished me luck.

After untold days of stress and tears and quiet phone calls made from behind my closed bedroom door, I finally found a doctor. The only caveats were that I had to pay out of pocket, pull my daughter from school to nab the only openings that were available, and cut out of work early each week.

I was brought to tears again, but this time they were a mix of relief that there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel, and sadness for all of the children who would never see it because their parents didn’t have the financial freedom or time to do what I had done.

After the kids went to bed I cried in the kitchen with my husband. I couldn’t believe that we lived in a society where children’s health and wellbeing had to be inexplicably tied to the amount of money in their parents’ bank accounts.

I know our story isn’t unique, because I ranted on social media about it as it was unfolding and religiously scrolled through my feed to commiserate with other parents who were in the same position. Recently, I had a chance to talk to Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, D.O, psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health, a provider of virtual and in-person outpatient mental health care about the mental health crisis facing kids today.

She says that they’ve seen an increase in the number of youth patients seeking mental healthcare since the start of the pandemic, which is likely why it is so hard for parents to find help for their children right now. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “While the pandemic has contributed to a true mental health crisis, I think one of the silver linings is that it has forced a national conversation about the destigmatization of mental health and encouraged parents, caretakers, and family members to have open and honest conversations with youth.”

Fortunately, our family was able to get help. But there are so many families out there who are still in the same position I was six months ago, with a call sheet a mile-long roadblock after roadblock between them and the care their child needs. If that’s you and your family, I just want to let you know you’re not alone.

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