The struggles of Hampton Roads and every other region throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have been well-documented.

One significant challenge and its byproducts (job loss, quarantine, uncertainty) is the toll it is taking on mental health. According to authors of Old Dominion University's State of the Region Report, COVID-19 could be exacerbating an already growing threat of mental health issues faced by youths in the United States.

"We need to talk about this as a society. Youth mental health is our collective health," Barbara Blake, chief administrative officer of the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis & Policy, said during the State of the Region presentation Oct. 6 in downtown Norfolk.

Even before the onset of stressors presented by COVID-19, there were worrying trends nationwide for youth mental health, according to the State of the Region.

In the 10 years between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of adolescents (ages 12-17) who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year rose from 8.2% to 13.3%. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24.

And authors of the State of the Region Report note their conversations with mental health providers in Hampton Roads suggest a surge of new cases may be on the way to the region's busy mental health providers.

The potential mental health effects of COVID-19 on children are grave - and not just for those who fall ill, or whose family members and loved ones have contracted the virus. "The demands of quarantine and social distancing have upended schooling, social support networks and daily routines for all children," the report notes.

Report authors recommend that society work to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking assistance for challenges to it, examining company policies regarding family mental health issues and improving mental health funding for schools.

"These changes are neither instantaneous nor easy," the report notes. "We are, however, moving in the right direction. Improving mental health services for youth not only provides benefits to those in need, but it also enhances the attractiveness of the region to businesses and talent."

There is also the issue of resources. The State of the Region chapter indicated that mental health providers in the region maintain there is a shortage of beds for Hampton Roads children who require acute psychiatric care, and that youth with particular conditions are routinely sent out of state for treatment.

To attempt to remedy this, the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters has broken ground on a $224 million, 14-story tower on the CHKD/EVMS/Sentara medical campus in Norfolk, slated to open in 2022. It will include 60 inpatient beds and offer an array of other outpatient treatments, including a partial hospitalization program that can provide children with services for six to eight hours a day for several weeks at a time, the State of the Region notes.

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