July 14, 2024


Built General Tough

COVID mental health, abuse issues show gaps in education, health care

Garry Simmons, a 10th-grader at Groves High School in Garden City, said he was always interested in the topic of mental health even before the pandemic started. But ever since school went virtual, and talks of isolation and digital exhaustion came to the forefront, Simmons noticed a shift in attitudes toward mental health at large. 

“I always did a lot of mental health research and think about what goes on in people’s heads,” said Simmons, who said his own diagnoses with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia has made him more in tune with kids in similar situations. 

“Before people would’ve kept it to themselves… because they feel they’re going to be judged,” said Simmons. “We’re spreading more awareness to mental health (now).”

Simmons is playing an active role in the renewed focus on mental health among youth.

He is one of four student hosts of a YouTube podcast called Teenish, which talks about anything from effects of the pandemic to the juvenile court system. The podcast, created with the help of Savannah’s Gateway Behavioral Health Community Service Board, started as an outlet for high school students to feel connected in a time of social isolation and also destigmatize conversations around mental health issues. 

The need for these types of discussions is great according to area mental health experts. Though students have all fared differently during pandemic schooling — some even thrived — it’s trite to say existing gaps in the education and health systems were widened, and struggling students were collateral damage, they say.

One of the underlying issues brought to light is the lack of mental health resources for children and adolescents, says Dr. Mark Johnson, a child psychiatrist from Gateway. According to Johnson his field is a “shortage specialty,” meaning there “aren’t enough child psychiatrists period.”

“South Georgia has a shortage of mental health professionals in general compared to Metropolitan Atlanta,” said Johnson, “and that’s for all outside the metropolitan areas.”

However, this is a problem all across the country and is true for psychologists and mental health services in general, whether for children or adults, says Johnson. But child psychiatry in particular is wanting. Johnson said this has a lot to do with the mechanics of the field, as well as workforce development, since a professional degree can take more than 10 years. 

Andrew McGahan, a child adolescent therapist in Savannah, describes an even more acute need when it comes to people of color, especially Black males. 

“There’s just not a lot of us in the area. I think if you go on Psychology Today and search up Savannah there’s about five or six of us that pop up,” said McGahan. “There’s a disproportionate size of the need for services for minorities.”

“perfect storm” when adolescent suicide rates have already steadily been rising since 2000, according to the CDC.  

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