The mental health crisis for children is still on the rise, and adults are doing very little to stop it. 

Over the past couple of years, reports suggest mental health emergency visits for kids ages 5 to 11 are up 24%. For teenagers, that number increases to 31%. It’s a troubling trend supported by several studies that show similar rates of increase in depression and anxiety among youth.

Many are quick to suggest the pandemic as the cause of these troubles. Certainly, there are negative impacts to mental health with a global pandemic. Yet there is arguably a far more significant contributor to what’s behind the decline in our kids’ mental health status: The toxic adults around them.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

One need look no further than Douglas County last week. Here again, public rage reared its ugly head when anonymous community members vandalized teacher’s vehicles with intimidating flyers and threatened release of personal information for perceived political enemies.

It’s part of the larger trend whereby rage, shame and intimidation are now the tactics of choice — and for years our children have been forced to watch every single minute of it.

It’s not sending them the right message.

At the core of the pandemic, it’s not the masks, vaccines, remote learning or any other unnecessarily contentious topics that are inherently the issues. The issue is that adults have, without a doubt, let their political rage get the best of them.

Collectively we have failed to manage our own stressors in a way that maintains a safe environment for our children. In doing so, we have subjected millions of children to not only the woes of a global pandemic, but a wide range of our own intense anger, anxieties and insecurities.

This toxic emotional dumping by adults will haunt our children forever.

Kids are like sponges. Their brains are wired to soak up the behaviors they see. Where there is toxic fighting, children learn to manage stress in similarly toxic ways.

If we kick, scream, yell and punch at each other, ultimately our youth will, too. They will have failed to learn successful tools for managing conflict and addressing different opinions.

The impacts of growing up in a toxic environment are well documented. Poor stress management can lead to everything from debilitating medical conditions, to negative career potentials to damaged interpersonal relationships.

Consider for a moment the emotional safety of kids forced to watch their teachers suffer, especially at the hands of their parents. Will this child learn shame? Distrust? Insecurity?

Or consider the children of those being threatened with public recourse. Can you even imagine how unsafe and unstable it would feel for adults in your community to violently target your caregiver and home? Sure, wearing a mask or Zooming may be unpleasant, but no wonder kids today are so depressed and anxious — the adults who are supposed to protect them can’t even hold a civil conversation. 

To those who want to suggest there was ugliness on both sides in Douglas County: no, there wasn’t. Peaceful protests are not harmful to children. Rather, they can teach and demonstrate to youth a way of working together as a cohesive group to stand up for what you believe in without violence or intimidation. It’s not even remotely in the same league as vandalizing teachers’ cars or threatening their homes and jobs.

Adults need to ask themselves some honest questions and quickly: When you engage politically, are you truly setting a positive example for the next generation? Are you shouting, name calling and threatening others, or are you listening, asking questions and trying to build bridges? If you don’t like what you find, don’t make excuses — be an adult and fix it.

Education extends well beyond the home and classroom. We don’t have to agree all the time, but we must relearn to do so reasonably in public discourse. If not for ourselves, let’s do it for the kids. 

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio