Award-Winning Journalist & Mental Health Experts Team Up To Support Kids’ Mental Health

Free online toolkit is designed to help children in the wake of the challenges created by COVID-19

September 6, 2022

McLean Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital mental health experts have teamed up with award-winning journalist Jeanne Blake to develop a new online program to address current and lingering mental health effects from the COVID-19 pandemic on children and adolescents.

The toolkit, which is available free of charge, uses real-life narratives from kids and parents and offers communication strategies for discussing mental health issues or concerns.

“The program, called The Pandemic and Kids’ Mental Health, is designed to help parents build kids’ resilience in the wake of disruptions and anxiety they’ve experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic—and related problems that may arise in the future,” said Blake.

Blake is a mental health advocate with close connections to both hospitals, including serving as a board member for McLean from 2008 to 2020. She now serves as an honorary trustee for McLean.

As with any trauma, mental health experts say the effects of the pandemic will emerge in some children over time.

“We can’t predict which children will be impacted long term by the pandemic,” said Daniel P. Dickstein, MD, FAAP, chief of the Nancy and Richard Simches Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at McLean. “It’s like shaking a bunch of soda cans. Some cans will burst, others won’t. That’s why it’s important that parents engage—and create opportunities for kids to talk.”

The program, available at WordsCanWork.com, was created by Blake Works, a Massachusetts-based leadership communications consulting firm founded by Blake. Paula K. Rauch, MD, founding director of the Marjorie E. Korff Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, is the project’s adviser.

The Pandemic and Kids’ Mental Health is built around three sets of videos with preschoolers, elementary school age children, and adolescents, along with their parents. The participants movingly describe the challenges they face and strategies they’ve used to navigate the pandemic.

Dickstein and Rauch expand on these case studies and provide practical suggestions that every parent can apply during discussions with their children.

Photo of family on computer

Rauch said it’s tempting for parents and their kids to put the worst days of the pandemic behind them and move on—but this is a lost opportunity.

“By talking openly with kids about their pandemic challenges—good and bad—we help them create a narrative around the experience. This opens up discussions and can lead to valuable insights,” Rauch said.

“What are the lessons? We need to focus on the values we can take from these experiences to set up children for success. So, when they face future tough times, they’ll remember, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve done this before. I can do this.’”

Thirteen-year-old Megan, who’s featured in the program’s teen video, said ongoing conversations with her parents throughout the pandemic have bolstered her confidence.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll remember this time as hard,” Megan noted. “But if I could get through that, anything else is going to be OK.”

Five-year-old Max said talking with his mom and dad helps him calm down.

“Then I feel like I’m not going to explode so much,” Max confided. “So that’s why it’s so important.”

The idea for The Pandemic and Kids’ Mental Health emerged early in the COVID-19 crisis, when Blake heard about a surge in demand for mental health treatment.

“Through my affiliation with McLean, and in my executive coaching consulting work, I was hearing about the growing stress of juggling work and family responsibilities,” Blake explained.

“I’m passionate about mental health and felt compelled to help. So, I leveraged my skills as a storyteller to help support children, adolescents, and families struggling with mental health challenges related to the pandemic.”

The first version of the toolkit, released in January 2021, was piloted to a select group of organizations.

Their feedback showed that “the program is effective,” Blake said.

“It was deeply satisfying to hear that the stories from families and information from experts in the videos catalyzed important conversations among other families.”

Growing evidence of a prolonged, COVID-related mental health crisis in children has spurred Blake to update the program and expand access by offering it at no charge.

Working with Rauch, Blake added new elements, including follow up interviews with some of the children and parents and a conversation guide for individuals and groups using the program.

Richard Knox, former medical correspondent for NPR and The Boston Globe, serves as the project’s editorial consultant.

The latest version of the program includes access to ongoing quick takes videos with up-to-the-moment information tailored to emerging developments—both related to the pandemic and to other national and global crises.

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