NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Mental health providers in Middle Tennessee have reported a sharp increase in demand for services for children and adolescents since COVID-19. Most experts agree there are more factors to this alarming trend that started before the pandemic hit.

The wildly popular, and controversial, Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” features a high school student who dies by suicide. Marion Smyser, LCSW, with Centerstone said when the show debuted in 2017, it fanned the flames of mental health concerns in some adolescents and teens.

“I, at the time, was a direct client-facing therapist at that point. I had so many girls, specifically, who had never expressed any sort of suicidal ideation saying that they were feeling that way,” Smyser said. “I think it’s because they were exposed to that idea through that show.”

Smyser now oversees Centerstone’s school-based therapy programs in Davidson, Wilson and Rutherford counties. She notes concerning trends in young children in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Symptoms that we would normally see primarily in middle and high school students are starting to appear and elementary school students. We have a number of really young kids who have been experiencing suicidal ideation, and severe anxiety and depression,” Smyser said. “I think isolation was really hard on them. A lot of them were just sent home with no social connection, and I think for some, that has stuck around and become a norm for them, unfortunately.”

There’s a consensus among most mental health professionals and new research that the pandemic only exacerbated an already-simmering children’s mental health crisis.

“I attribute it to social media,” Smyser said. “100%.”

“Covid really took us out of our community. Unfortunately, this drove us into social media,” said Rikki Harris, CEO of TN Voices. “Looking at social media for connection and belonging is a false sense of reality in a lot of ways for students.”

TN voices is a non-profit organization that provides mental health resources and programming statewide. Harris said social media use has very different effects for children versus adults because of their cognitive development level. Kids can get caught up in the comparison game with millions of people online.

“We can now look at people all over the world and compare,” Harris said. “I think as a young person, that’s where some of the critical stage of building self-concept and forming identity and understanding who you are, can really become lost in comparison.”

Harris encourages parents to foster in-person communities and activities for their kids and to enforce guidelines for social media use.

“Know your child’s needs and notice how the use of social media, if you allow it, impacts their mental health,” Harris said.

“Young adolescents, their brains are not developed enough to be able to process the onslaught of information that they will experience on social media,” Smyser said. “I think also just processing with them, what they are being exposed to, can make a huge difference. Then they have an adult to kind of co-regulate with them as they are experiencing distress over these really mature topics.”

Smyser said parents can model a healthy relationship with technology by reducing their own phone use, less screen time means more family time, face-to-face.

To find out more about Centerstone’s programs, click here. More information on programs offered by TN Voices can be found here.

As demand for mental health services for children grows in the state, News 2 explores how Tennessee is addressing those needs in a series of special reports: Kids and Mental Health.