We cannot allow the coronavirus pandemic or the economic downturn it has caused to leave lasting emotional and mental scars on our younger generation. Here’s what we can do.
In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway popularized the phrase “The Lost Generation,” referring to his own cohort of young men who came of age during World War I. Roughly 20 million of them died in that war. Those who came home had to deal with not only physical wounds, but also the shattering psychological scars of trench warfare. The term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, hadn’t yet been coined, and many of them mostly suffered in silence.
Today, we face a different life-threatening global crisis, yet one that could similarly threaten a new generation of youth. Based on what medical and public health experts have seen so far, children and adolescents seem physically more resilient to the ravages of COVID-19, but the effects on their mental health, now and in the long-term, could be profound, particularly for those living in marginalized communities. (See our latest position paper, "The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children's Mental Health: An Initial Assessment.")
Some children have already had to bear the loss of family members and loved ones to the virus. Many more struggle with the fear and isolation of lockdown and the stress on their families and friendships, in this time of unprecedented instability and economic uncertainty. In fact, research has shown a higher prevalence of mental health problems during recessions. In particular, children whose parents have lost their livelihoods due to recession tend to suffer a higher prevalence of depression, greater rates of psychological symptoms and overall lower perceptions of psychological wellbeing.1
Among vulnerable populations, the problem is even more severe. In the U.S., the pandemic has hit Black and Latinx communities disproportionately 2, compounding the consequences of longstanding health-care disparities and systemic inequities. What’s more, the concept of quarantine, or sheltering in place, assumes a safe and stable environment, which many of those living in poverty lack. The additional educational inequities of living in communities with low-performing public schools and inadequate home-schooling experiences have jeopardized the futures of a generation of children. Finally, vulnerable children may face a higher risk of PTSD due to hunger—now rivaling levels last seen in the Great Depression—as well as family stressors, lack of institutional support and other challenges fueled by the ongoing outbreak and ensuing disruptions 3.
What can be done? Since its inception, the Morgan Stanley Foundation has focused on giving children the healthy start they need in life to succeed. Over the 20-plus years I have led this organization, we have achieved tremendous success in advancing children’s physical health by delivering the highest quality medical care and by addressing the critical issues of nutrition and play, in addition to promoting wellness in general.
But we knew that in order to help kids holistically, we needed to do more to address children’s psychological needs as well. At the start of this year, we launched the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health to help fight this growing global crisis, especially among communities that persistently lack access to treatment. Our goal: Use the resources of the Morgan Stanley Foundation, as well as the knowledge and experience of our key nonprofit partner organizations in this space, to help address children’s mental health, specifically the far-reaching challenges of stress, anxiety and depression.
Our inaugural nonprofit partner organizations included the Child Mind Institute, The Jed Foundation, NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, and the Steve Fund in the U.S; Mind HK, Place2Be, and SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) internationally. Together we aim to scale the proven methods of our nonprofit partner organizations through growth capital; sustain the goals of these organizations through capacity building; bring new, innovative ideas to fruition through seed-funding; and use our voice and broad global footprint to raise awareness,
Then COVID-19 hit. And we realized that now, more than ever, we need urgent attention and concerted actions to respond to this new crisis in children’s mental health, through timely education, intervention, innovation, and by promoting awareness. That’s why in early April, Morgan Stanley made an additional grant to the Child Mind Institute, a founding member of the Alliance, to provide digital mental health resources for children, adolescents and young adults, with a focus on vulnerable communities that traditionally lack access to these resources.
The Alliance will also continue to assist youth and young adults through formative transitions, and through the challenges of job loss and ongoing loss of employment opportunities, as well as through disruptions of school curriculum, examinations and assessments, all of which can lead to stress and anxiety. We will keep focusing on our initiatives at schools, especially at the secondary and higher education levels, where many students will return when campuses reopen. Schools are real-life systems where we can act to create and augment mental health safety nets for youth.
We will redouble our efforts to help parents and caregivers recognize mental health disorders, support their children’s ongoing needs and strengthen their resilience to disasters. We will also strengthen our commitment to addressing inequality by supporting Black and Latinx children and those from families living near and below the poverty line. These communities have been disproportionately affected by the devastation of COVID-19.
Finally, we will promote public awareness of how the COVID-19 pandemic affects children’s mental health—both in this moment and in the long term. Together with our nonprofit partner organizations, we will do everything we can so that the children who experience the global pandemic don’t become the next "lost generation," but rather, a generation that thrives, despite this crisis, and emerges stronger and better prepared in every way to take on the challenges of the very different world that awaits them.