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Pandemic isolation took a toll on kids’ mental health, but treatment is backlogged — and some families can’t afford to wait

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OREGON (WKOW) -- The Dewbre family from Oregon got to see a lot of each other during the pandemic, as virtual learning kept the kids at home -- hanging out with the family as much as they could stand.

"12- and 13-year-olds think their parents aren't very cool," said mom Sarah Dewbre.

The Dewbre Family (Photo Courtesy: Sarah Dewbre)

7-year-old Allie, 10-year-old Jack and 13-year-old Owen make up the next generation of Dewbres.

"COVID hit (Owen) pretty hard," Sarah said. "He's a very social kid, so that isolation changed him a little bit."

Change isn't new for Owen.

"He was about 10 when he came to us and said he associated as a male," Sarah said.

Owen was born female. Sarah says the family supported him from the beginning, but growing into a transgender teenager during a pandemic was not easy.

"He's not going through any of those normal biological changes that a boy would go through in eight grade, right?" she said. "So his voice isn't changing and sounds still very feminine. When he's on a video call, most of them don't even have their cameras on -- it's usually just people talking. and I think that was really hard for him."

Isolation kept him safe from the virus, but something just as sinister started slowly infecting him.

"It's much easier to say on social media, 'You're gross. You're transgender,'" Sarah said. "Where someone probably wouldn't say that to their face."

Owen Dewbre speaking at an event celebrating marginalized communities in Oregon in June 2020 (Photo Courtesy: Sarah Dewbre)

Owen has been vocal about being transgender, speaking last year to a crowded Oregon park celebrating marginalized communities after George Floyd was killed.

He was the same way online, finding a community that accepted him.

"There was this group of probably, I don't know, a thousand different kids that all messaged back and forth which each other," Sarah said.

That filled his socialization void -- until the community turned on him.

"That was when my son tried to take action and tried to commit suicide," Sarah said. "My ex-husband took him into the hospital, and then I took his phone."

What she found on his phone shocked her.

"There were at least 800 messages sent to my son telling him to kill himself," Sarah said.

Owen spent eight days in an emergency facility.

The messages kept coming.

"One of the young people found his Facebook profile, and then found out I was his mom through his Facebook profile," Sarah said. "They started sending me threatening Facebook messages about how I'm raising this terrible kid and he should kill himself."

The Wisconsin Office of Children's Mental Health says this state is among the top five for most insurance claims for intentional self-harm injuries during the pandemic—a 100 percent increase in self-harm, substance abuse and mental health claims for teens in 2020 compared to 2019.

The pandemic—and its isolation—gripping kids tightly.

"We're getting a large number of calls from parents looking to find ways to get support for their children," said Anna Moffit, who runs Dane County's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says this mental health crisis is not new to 2020.

"Pre-pandemic, we were really looking at a steady increase in mental health conditions across the board," she said.

Data Courtesy: Wisconsin Department of Health Services

State health data shows that increase each year in people using mental health services, until 2020 -- when there was actually a slight drop.

While the mental health crisis exploded, the availability of services was slim.

"I think when we all went into sheltering in place, people obviously were worried about going out, or maybe they didn't want to engage with telehealth services, which is what most providers moved towards," Moffit said.

In Owen's situation, mom Sarah says he needs a type of continued support that just isn't available.

"Right now, when we're looking for them, the waitlist is about three months long for him to get into any of those facilities," she said.

That's three months Sarah doesn't have.

Toward the end of April, three weeks after his first trip to the hospital, Owen was back in emergency care.

He tried to take his life again.

"I think my story's exactly what's going to happen with other individuals," Sarah said. "A scare happens, you bring them to the right facility, you do the things that you need to, and then they come home. But they're not here, they're not healthy yet, and they need more support."

Moffit says the wait times for continued care have been long for quite a while.

"Wait times have been an issue since I have been engaged with the behavioral health system," she said.

Moffit says organizations like her's are working hard to fill gaps, but big, systemic changes are needed to address mental health -- from all levels of government -- because the problem will only grow.

"There's really going to be this collective trauma that we've experienced and that will need to be addressed down the road," she said.

Moffit is optimistic that because the crisis is now so visible, it will finally be addressed.

"I do think it has elevated the issue of behavioral health and the importance of support for people who are living with a mental health condition," she said. "So that has been really positive."

But change comes slowly.

And for a family, and a boy, dealing with so many changes -- slowly won't cut it.

"I can call until I'm blue in the face," Sarah Dewbre said. "But that's not going to make a bed open up."

The Oregon community is hosting an event to celebrate LGBTQ people there on June 5. That's the same event at which Owen spoke last summer.

If you, your child or someone you know is struggling, you can always reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with them online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Author Profile Photo

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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