RISE looks at recent headlines concerning social determinants of health (SDoH).

 The impact of COVID-19 on children across the globe: 10.5M are orphaned

A new research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics notes that 10.5 million of children worldwide has lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19. The greatest numbers of orphans or those who have lost a primary or secondary caregiver were in Africa and Southeast Asia.

“While billions of dollars are invested in preventing COVID-19–associated deaths, little is being done to care for children left behind,” wrote lead author Susan Hillis, Ph.D., a former CDC epidemiologist who is now at the University of Oxford and is part of an international team that is studying children affected by COVID-19.

Only Peru and the United States have made a national commitment to address COVID-19 associated orphanhood, the research team wrote. Given the magnitude and lifelong consequences of orphanhood, researchers urge timely care for these children as part of a pandemic response plan to help mitigate lasting adverse consequences. The strategy is a public health imperative and would include economic support, violence prevention, parenting support, and access to schools.

Grant to help establish a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), has awarded $2 million in funding to the American Academy of Pediatrics to establish a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness. The HHS funding provides $2 million per year, up to five years.

The center aims to develop and disseminate information, guidance, and training on the impact—including risks and benefits—that social media use has on children and young people, especially the risks to their mental health. It will also examine clinical and social interventions that can be used to prevent and mitigate the risks.

“There are benefits to social media use, but there are clearly risks, too–especially when it comes to mental health,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in the announcement. “This new center will help our families better protect our children from lurking dangers. And it’s one more example of HHS’ commitment to strengthen mental health.”

The Center will focus on three priorities:

  • Education and resources around the risks and benefits of social media use for children and youth
  • Culturally and linguistically appropriate technical assistance focusing on active learning, consultation, and support on how to best assist children and youth when interfacing with the digital world in a way that enhances their mental health while reducing harm
  • Best practices and research updates

HHS awards millions in grants to address mental health

HHS and SAMHSA have also announced the agencies have awarded $40.22 million in youth mental health grants in August, as well as $47.6 million in new grant funding opportunities developed from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“The number of children in America diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions is on the rise,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in the grant announcement. “It’s time to heed President Biden’s call to strengthen mental health in America, especially for our littlest ones. Young or old, we deserve a chance to build resilience and thrive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the ongoing mental health crisis for the nation’s youth. Indeed, SAMHSA’s 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) previously reported that among adolescents ages 12-17, 12 percent said they had serious thoughts of suicide, 5.3 percent made a suicide plan, and 2.5 percent attempted suicide in the past year. Those who experienced a major depressive episode reported they were more likely than those who did not to feel that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected their mental health “quite a bit or a lot.”

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent and those with depression by 27percent, according to data from the HHS Health Resources & Services Administration’s (HRSA) National Survey of Children’s Health. And from 2019 and 2020, 21 percent more children were diagnosed with behavioral or conduct problems.

In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for young people aged 10-14 and 25-34, according to a report by the HHS Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.