MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The mental health crisis among children has become so dire, local medical experts are sounding the alarm. They’re calling it a public health emergency.

For the past decade, mental health concerns in children have been steadily rising.

Then the pandemic hit, ushering in a new set of challenges like social isolation, devastating losses and sudden financial family hardships.

The CDC reported during the pandemic, 55% of children were emotionally abused by their parent or caregiver. 11% were physically abused.

Schools, normally there to keep children safe and connect them to services, were virtual.

Emergency department visits for mental health rose among children.

There was hope it’d get better as life got back to normal, but social workers report many kids are still experiencing a high level of mental health challenges. It’s forced medical experts like Dr. Altha Stewart to sound the alarm.

“We are in a public health emergency. There’s no question,” Stewart said. “More people don’t respond, because for the most part, they don’t know what to do.”

Stewart is the director of the Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being at UT Health, which works with children with mental illness, trauma, those being pulled into gangs or are already in the system.

“I tell people talking about trauma and understanding behavior as a result of trauma, is not an excuse. It’s an explanation,” she said.

She says a child’s brain isn’t developed; they’re going through puberty and those changes drive them to seek approval from their peers. Then add new challenges from the pandemic and core issues like poverty, structural racism, housing instability and food insecurity.

“If our only response is that we are going to lock you up, then we are creating the monsters that we fear,” Stewart said.

To top it off, violence is plaguing the city. Children bearing witness far too often and are navigating their way through crime tape on their to school. They have become victims or lost relatives.

That adds more trauma.

“Trauma is going to happen. I don’t think there’s a way around it,” said Shawandra Ford.

She started Brwnskyn Yoga in Whitehaven with the intent to teach yoga to undeserved communities. She started working with her first school, right as the pandemic hit.

“When we were practicing yoga on Zoom, sometimes the parents would be in the background, and they would come and join us and practice as well,” Ford said.

Ford shared this picture of her teaching yoga on Zoom

She said her curriculum became crucial. It helped students improve their focus, self-awareness and relieve stress and anxiety.

Memphis Shelby County Schools also saw the benefits. She’s now working with truant students and athletes in multiple schools.

We met her in May at A. Maceo Walker Middle. She taught several poses and breathing techniques.

Their PE and health teacher, Charles Peace, said most of the students had never done yoga.

“Think there are so many negative influences on our youth especially in our inner city,” Peace said. “I really want to ensure the district is focusing on the whole child. Not just them as far as academics, but them socially, physically, and emotionally as well.”

MSCS didn’t agree to an interview, but told us it’s invested in health, safety and social emotional learning, including $100 million in supports, social workers, behavior specialists and family wellness centers.

There is another half million in COVID mental health supplements and $22 million in mentorships and counseling programs.

Its initiatives include trauma-informed parenting sessions and an emotional support hot line.

MSCS provided this chart for more information

MSCS assured us progress is being made. It claims it reached thousands of students and curbed suspensions and gang-related incidents. They vow to continue to grow services and partnerships.

“One of the biggest takeaways — we are still recovering,” Ford said.

She said focusing on prevention is the only way out.