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Dr. Sukhera to Sen Chris Murphy: 'We Have Challenges' Meeting Demands for Kids' Mental Health

March 11, 2022

The uncertainty of the pandemic has led to lack of structure and predictability for children and families, with changes in schooling, sports activities, masking and more, leading to an increase in mental health needs. Javeed Sukhera, MD, PhD, FRCPC, chair of psychiatry at the Institute of Living and chief of the Department of Psychiatry at Hartford Hospital, participated in a Facebook live video interview March 10 with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., about the mental health of children, the rising need for services, and the impact of the pandemic. Dr. Sukhera and Sen. Murphy had a wide-ranging conversation about the signs of potential mental health concerns, the impact of social media on young teens, and ways to access care, including telehealth programs. “Some degree of a response to stress is normal," Dr. Sukhera said, "but when that response leads to problems with functioning, issues with sleeping, irritability, inability to enjoy things they used to enjoy, flags in school behavior, then we have to do our best to meet young people where they are and create space to check-in with them. Encourage them to know we are present and are here for them when they are ready to talk.” Sen. Murphy asked about the best way for parents to access care and whether it’s through a pediatrician. Dr. Sukhera said if parents are feeling overwhelmed, they should definitely ask for help, whether it is from a pediatrician, a school counselor or community organizations. A pilot program of telehealth access is available in Connecticut for pediatricians or family doctors to reach out to mental health professionals, which Dr. Sukhera said provides a valuable resource in accessing care and expertise. Dr. Sukhera also spoke about how heartbreaking it is that the system isn’t always able to meet the demand for care, which results in long waits for psychiatric inpatient beds. “We have challenges, but we are here and we will do everything we can to help,” he said. He encouraged decisionmakers to look at the entire system, including prevention and early intervention programs that connect children with behavioral healthcare before they are in crisis. Sen. Murphy also asked about social media and the impact that can have on kids’ mental health. Both shared that they have 13-year-old children themselves and are concerned about the content available online, as well as the amount of time children spend scrolling. Dr. Sukhera said he has daily conversations letting kids know that social media can be addicting and encouraging unplugging and disconnecting. “A lot of us have struggled with that balance during the pandemic,” he said. “I encourage parents and kids to prescribe breaks, walks with family, activities that don’t involve apps like TikTok or Instagram.” The impact of the pandemic on healthcare providers was another topic Sen. Murphy brought up, asking how Dr. Sukhera and his colleagues are doing. “We are human and vulnerable. We are giving our all and we know there are less of us,” Dr. Sukhera said. “We need to make sure our systems are built to allow those of us who work in them to bring our full selves and our compassion to the kids who need us.”