On January 11, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Surgeon General of California, joined NPR’s Morning Edition to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children. Dr. Burke Harris is known for her work to incorporate Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) screenings in health care settings throughout California.

During her interview, Dr. Burke Harris noted that medical professionals are seeing increased rates in depression and anxiety, as well as increased rates of substance misuse among teens, and are concerned about suicidality and self-harm.

In October, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency for children’s mental health, and officials have warned that the situation has only become worse in the months since school started, pointing to increased hospitalizations among youth for all the reasons listed above.

Dr. Burke Harris attributed this increase to the “activation of the stress response, which a lot of us are experiencing now during the pandemic, can actually affect the way children’s brains develop and put them at greater risk for developing both mental and physical health conditions.”

Children involved in the child welfare are more likely to experience ACEs and toxic stress, making them more vulnerable and increasing their risk of mental health concerns.

According to Burke Harris, the science is clear on the solution: “safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments are healing and that they can help the body biologically be able to weather these stressors in a way that is much healthier for kids in the long term.”

Dr. Burke Harris ends the interview with hope, advocating that all adults in a child’s life be aware of the impact of ACEs and how to support young people, because “just as the experiences of adversity can accumulate to increase risk, the experiences of nurturing, buffering care add up to protect our kids.”

Given the increased vulnerability of the child welfare population, it’s imperative that Congress make investments in the systems that support children and families this year, making this “nurturing, buffering care” possible for all children.