WASHINGTON – Courtney Grund, whose husband died of COVID-19 in August, received an alarming text last week that her 16-year-old son was “talking about self-harm,” according to the message, sent by his friend. She quickly signed him up for a bereavement counseling service, she said in a tearful interview, using her maiden name to protect her privacy.
John Jackson, a disabled veteran on a fixed income, said he had struggled to find help for his 14-year-old daughter, whose mother died during the pandemic. “I can see it in her, where she is suffering,” he said.
Pamela Addison, a reading teacher whose husband is deceased, said she felt lucky to be able to afford therapy – $ 200 a session out of pocket – for her grieving 3-year-old.
Although Congress has allocated billions of dollars to fight the pandemic, including more than $ 100 million for existing children’s mental health programs and $ 122 billion for schools, the Biden administration and lawmakers do have yet to create initiatives specifically for the tens of thousands of children who have lost parents and primary caregivers to COVID-19.
Behind the scenes, leaders of a bipartisan coalition of education, economics and health experts – backed by wealthy philanthropists and led by two former governors, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, a Republican, and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, a Democrat – met with White House officials, urging them to do more.
Thursday – just two days after the surgeon general warned young people were facing ‘devastating’ mental health issues linked to the pandemic – this group, the COVID Collaborative, will release a report estimating that more than 167,000 children in the states -Unis have lost parents or home caregivers to illness.
The collaboration calls on President Joe Biden to launch a nationwide campaign to identify these children and, with help from the private sector, take action to improve their emotional and economic well-being. His recommendations include providing them with mental health care and creating a “COVID Fund for Bereaved Children,” similar to a fund created after the September 11 attacks, to provide up to $ 10,000 to families in need.
“The president is uniquely positioned to put an official imprimatur on the call in this report to coordinate all resources, public and private, at every level of government and at every level of the private sector and philanthropy to help these children.” Patrick said in a statement. maintenance.
“It’s a tragedy that is not of their making,” he added, “but these are our children. They belong to us, and all we say is, ‘let’s do it. “
The report, titled “Hidden Pain,” estimates that over 70% of bereaved children are 13 years of age or younger. It’s based on federal data and a modeling study led by Dan Treglia, a social policy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Communities of color are disproportionately affected. Treglia, who is also part of the collaboration, said the racial and ethnic disparities in the loss of caregivers from COVID-19 outweighed the already glaring disparities in coronavirus deaths.
Parents and young people left behind have said the surge in the COVID Collaborative is good news, if only to force Washington officials to recognize this new cohort of bereaved children.
Grund picked up his son from school last week after receiving his friend’s text; he hasn’t come back yet.
He went to his first group therapy session on Tuesday night. In an interview, he said he had mood swings and suicidal thoughts and didn’t want to leave his room. He would like to see initiatives that would better equip teachers and school officials to help bereaved students.
“No one knew how to deal with what I was going through, so it was difficult for the teachers to communicate with me,” he said, adding that if he could talk to his friends it hadn’t helped much. “I can share with them, but it’s through one ear and the other,” he said. “They don’t fully understand and, like, don’t deal with the whole situation.”
Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Kirsten Allen said the administration “has made a number of investments and launched several initiatives covering a wide range of mental health priorities, including support for children who have lost their parents “.
She cited the opinion of the surgeon general and the expansion of several existing programs. In May, for example, the ministry announced it was releasing $ 14.2 million, allocated by Congress under the American Rescue Plan, to expand access to pediatric mental health care. The rescue plan also provided funds for suicide prevention programs and a program to improve care and access to services for “traumatized children”.
John Bridgeland, founder and CEO of the collaboration, said expanding existing programs wasn’t enough. “We need a focused effort to help the unbearable loss of these 167,000 children,” he said.
The loss of a parent or guardian is difficult for a child in ordinary times. But grief counseling experts and school officials say the pandemic has taken its toll.
“The death of a parent is something we deal with all the time – not just with COVID,” said Susan Gezon Morgan, a school nurse in Emmett, Idaho, a small town outside of Boise. “But I think the fact that COVID is in the news and so suddenly, and often it’s a young parent, that it sounds so much more traumatic.”
In a small community like Emmett, where everyone knows each other, Morgan said, grief goes both ways. Grieving children lose their privacy, but they also have a tight-knit community to support them. In big cities, it’s a different story.
Jackson, of Reisterstown, Md., Just outside Baltimore, teaches his daughter, Akeerah, in part because he fears her peers will be callous, encouraging her to “just get over” his loss.
When Akeerah’s mother, Cathy Fulcher, passed away, Jackson received a note from the Baltimore County school system saying she might delay submitting her grades, but little guidance. Soon after, he said, he started looking for a place for his daughter to go to therapy.
“One was $ 250; they didn’t take any kind of insurance, ”he said. “It was just for us to come in for an assessment. It is just not in the budget.
Eventually, he found Roberta’s House, a Baltimore family support center. There, Akeerah said, she learned to cope with her grief by drawing and writing in a journal, and she is now a “peer ambassador,” leading sessions for other teens. She also attended Camp Erin, a free camp for grieving children offered in cities across the country.
Both are funded by the New York Life Foundation, which also supports the COVID Collaborative and has created a website, grievingstudents.org, to provide information to educators as part of its earlier “Schools Sensitive to Grief” initiative. to the pandemic. Foundation vice president Maria Collins says many of its programs have waiting lists.
“It is known in this field that the young person is the forgotten complainant,” she said, adding that the foundation was open to working with the federal government and would be “willing to provide tangible support, financial and otherwise, to children bereaved by COVID. . “
The collaboration provides $ 2-3 billion for the bereavement fund, possibly supplemented by funds from private foundations. It would help parents grappling with everything from rent payments and their children’s academic performance to finding the right therapy at a reasonable cost.
The report builds on similar research: The journal Pediatrics, drawing on data up to June 30, before the wave of infections caused by the delta variant, reported in October that more than 120,000 American children had lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19.
Researchers who conducted the collaborative’s study found that black and Hispanic children were about 2.5 times more likely than whites to be bereaved because of the pandemic, while Native American children were nearly four times more likely than whites. susceptible. Treglia, whose research focuses on vulnerable populations, said the number of bereaved children increased rapidly during the delta’s surge, in part because it affected so many adults of childbearing age.
“There is an extraordinary responsibility to take care of these children,” he said. “Many of them were facing economic and other hardships even before the pandemic began, and certainly before losing a caregiver. Now they face their darkest days.
Some parents whose spouses were frontline workers say they would at least like some recognition from Washington that their loved ones died trying to protect others.
Addison, whose husband was a speech-language pathologist at a hospital in Paterson, New Jersey, leads a support group called the Young Widows and Widowers of COVID-19. It estimates that 95% of its 900 members have children.
“You invite athletes to the White House because they won a championship; why not invite families who have lost a loved one because they went to the hospital, they went to a school that was not really safe? she said. “You see, when a serviceman dies there is this great celebration of his life and the kids know their parent is a hero. Our children need this.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.