Caring for those in Need

COVID and Mental Health: Children with Special Needs Most Impacted

Students with disabilities had the most learning loss during the pandemic. Some children with special needs also developed mental health issues. So how bad is it?

BY Lauren Agoratus, M.A. | September 2022 | Category: Education

COVID and Mental Health: Children with Special Needs Most Impacted

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has declared a national pediatric mental health emergency. The AAP notes that “Children and families across our country have experienced enormous adversity and disruption. The inequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color.”

The Surgeon General also issued an advisory on the same issue. This report stated that “the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered young peoples’ experiences at home, at school, and in the community. The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”

What does this mean for students with disabilities?

Data shows that children with disabilities were impacted the most from challenges due to COVID.1 It is also important to note that there is often comorbidity with mental illness.2 Besides learning loss, students with disabilities also may not have received necessary related services such as: physical, occupational, and speech therapies, resulting in skills loss. Like all children, children with special healthcare needs may have developed mental health issues. Some students who never had mental health issues do now; others who had mental health challenges have seen those challenges exacerbated. Many children with developmental disabilities have regressed and demonstrate more challenging behaviors.

What can be done?

There has been a movement to integrate behavioral health into primary care. Pediatricians and family providers can do quick screenings and then refer if needed. However, there are sometimes long wait lists for pediatric mental health providers. In some states, behavioral health integration uses a PCP (primary care provider) in a consultative telehealth model with a mental health provider (see Project LAUNCH grantee states

Another successful approach is addressing mental health in schools. Since students spend so much time in school, providing mental health services where they are, makes sense. Some states, like NJ, have developed mental health guides with resources and effective practices. Schools can also do mental health screenings and give families referral resources. In addition, schools can help eliminate stigma associated with mental illness and raise awareness. Positive school climate which includes: bullying prevention programs or Schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports, can help. The Center for Parent Information and Resources lists mental health organizations, finding help, and information on specific disorders. The National Federation of Families (for Children’s Mental Health) also has information on useful resources. Programs such as: NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) In Our Own Voice, and Ending the Silence, are available to schools and students (see Resources).

Where to find help

Many states have a Children’s System of Care for mental health. There is also a chapter of the National Federation of Families in each state. NAMI also has a presence in the states. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has a treatment locator. These programs offer help, information and support to children and their families. NAMI also has support groups, workshops, a youth initiative, and even social activities in some states. In addition, the national 988 hotline has gone into effect (as of 7/16/22). This crisis hotline can assist families with trained professionals, rather than calling the police, who may not be as trained in addressing mental illness. 988 will also refer families to local resources in their communities.

Awareness has increased as to how the pandemic adversely affected children, particularly those with disabilities, and created a mental health crisis. Pediatricians, schools, and families can help children with mental illness utilizing available resources. 

Pandemic panic : help, information and support for children and their families

American academy of pediatrics Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Office of the Surgeon General

Protecting Youth Mental Health

NJ Dept. of Education

Mental Health Guide

Center for Parent Information and Resources 

National Federation of Families for children’s mental health 




Lauren Agoratus, M.A. is the NJ Coordinator for Family Voices, NJ Regional Coordinator for the Family-to-Family Health Information Center, and Product Development Coordinator for RAISE (Resources for Advocacy, Independence, Self-Determination, and Employment). She also serves as NJ representative for the Caregiver Community Action Network as a volunteer. Nationally, Lauren has served on the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities transplant committee (antidiscrimination), Center for Health Care Strategies Medicaid Workgroup on Family Engagement, Family Advisor for Children & Youth with Special Health Care Needs National Research Network,National Quality Forum-Pediatric Measures Steering Committee, and Population Health for Children with Medical Complexity Project-UCLA. She has written blogs and articles nationally, including publications in 2 academic journals ( Lauren was recently named a Hero Advocate by Exceptional Parent Magazine ( 

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