Editorial (opinion): There is no vaccine to protect kids from trauma of pandemic

Connecticut Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, pulls up his mask during session at the State Capitol, Monday, April 19, 2021. The Connecticut House of Representatives on Monday was expected to pass a contentious bill that would end the state's long-standing religious exemption from immunization requirements for schools.

Connecticut Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, pulls up his mask during session at the State Capitol, Monday, April 19, 2021. The Connecticut House of Representatives on Monday was expected to pass a contentious bill that would end the state's long-standing religious exemption from immunization requirements for schools.

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

Let’s give some credit to Connecticut lawmakers for discussing the issue few people want to talk about — children harming themselves.

We want to believe kids are invincible. Maybe that’s why too many Connecticut residents cling to a misplaced belief that young people have been safer than everyone else throughout these last 21 months of the COVID era.

It started back in March 2020 with rallies to let them play football. It peaked with calls to keep them in the classroom even as the number of victims was still rising. It persists in lawn signs to “unmask our kids.”

Children may be at a lower risk of getting the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic hasn’t taken a toll. If they tend to be more resilient physically, they have been vulnerable emotionally.

Connecticut Speaker of the House Matt Ritter organized a forum in Hartford last week to gather experts and legislators to develop a plan to try to prevent more tragedies. Connecticut and the rest of the world are still following daily data charts on COVID-19. Homicides still reliably become front page news. But children who feel isolated, traumatized, depressed or afraid aren’t as easy to quantify.

Yes, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner documented 15 suicides of people 19 years of age and younger in 2020, and 20 in 2019. Too many kids in emotional distress are showing up at hospital emergency departments. Others are suffering in silence, creating a ripple effect that touches the lives of family members and peers.

These are COVID’s invisible victims, and there will never be a vaccine to protect them.

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan outlined challenges, and some possible solutions, at the forum. She pointed out that hospitals won’t discharge cardiac patients until they’re ready, but a shortage of residential treatment facilities means seriously depressed children are sent back home. That’s one problem that can be fixed.

The data that can be tracked about children in emotional crisis underscores the urgency of the issue. Eagan, a co-chair of the Child Fatality Review Panel, said suicide is the second-leading cause of preventable death for children starting at age 10.

Eagan pitched other needed strategies as well, focused on reducing behavioral health care costs for families.

She was joined by other experts who are eyewitnesses to this harrowing social issue. Deidre Gifford, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, wisely pointed out that a single agency can’t own this problem. The forum is a promising start to unifying resources.

The forum should lead to at least one bill to be addressed when lawmakers return in the new year, and hopefully will inspire more efforts to synchronize stakeholders.

But this problem can’t be solved by lawmakers and health officials alone. This is a unique time in history, one which has inspired a stubborn resolve to choose sides. When it comes to the mental health of children, no lines should divide us.