Isolation and "screen burnout" taking a toll on children's mental health during pandemic

Mental health among kids, teens declining
Mental health among kids, teens declining 04:55

Five days a week, sixth-grader Rocco Testa leaves home to attend school in person in Little Falls, New Jersey. CBS News first met Testa in last summer when he bravely opened up about his mental health during the pandemic

"It's just me being angry at the world and everything because of COVID and stuff," he told CBS News' Meg Oliver.

Like most children, Testa spent last spring inside, learning in front of a computer. Isolation took a heavy toll, but many of his frustrations faded after returning in person this fall.

"Are you still mad at the world?" Oliver asked.

"No, not really at all," he replied.

Kids and mental health during the pandemic 04:44

Rocco's mom Gina Testa said she saw Rocco return to his usual self. He was excited again and getting up in the morning to go to school. She is a guidance counselor in a nearby district where the school is only virtual

"My students are suffering. They're breaking down. I have parents that are on Zooms with me crying about what's going on with their kids at home," she said.

For many children, as the pandemic has raged on, their mental health has continued to suffer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that emergency departments saw a more than 30% spike in visits from children 12 to 17 years old for mental health reasons between April and October.

Across the country, millions of students are still attending school only remotely—something school psychologists Sherri Glassman said is contributing to a decline in mental health among children.

Glassman is a school psychologist in Testa's district, where there's a hybrid program meaning some students in person and some are virtual.

"Our virtual students are dealing with a lot of isolation, a lot of screen burnout," she said. Glassman credits Testa's improvement with early intervention, proactive parents, and returning to school in person.

Doctor Maria Yerovi, a pediatrician in New Jersey, said she receives "5 to 10 calls a day" from parents about kids' mental health. Most of the calls she gets are about kids as young as kindergarten through college. She said that there are certain signs parents should be on the lookout for if they suspect something is troubling their child.

"Not wanting to be involved in activities, not wanting to eat or staying in their room, sleeping." Yerovi said.

In a Mental Health America survey conducted in September, more than half of children ages 11 to 17 reported that they had thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks. According to the survey, they were also more likely than any other age group to have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Yerovi said if parents suspect their children are at risk of hurting themselves or are showing signs of depression, they should intervene and immediately take them to the hospital.

"Get help. Call psychologists, call somebody, get help for them and for the family," she said.

Testa said that talking about his mental health made a big difference for him. He said it made him happy, and he felt like he was making a difference by telling his story. His mom said that keeping the conversation going, just like how Rocco did, helps normalize the issue.

"Because it definitely normalizes these feelings. And it ends that stigma of mental health issues. There should be no stigma around it. People need to talk about these things and know other people going through the same things they are," she said.

Michael Tozzoli, clinician and CEO of West Bergen Mental Health Center, told CBS News that the health center is overwhelmed with calls from parents of struggling kids.

As the mental health crisis continues, Glassman said she hopes getting kids back in person is prioritized.