By: Kenneth McGill, EdS LMFT

Kenneth initially wrote this blog in early June. We find his words ring just as true today, as America continues to respond to the pandemic and the racial inequities laid bare and necessitating both a shared vision and transformation.

Like many it only took me a few weeks to recognize the immense impact spreading across my local community, the state, country and throughout the world. Now, as a mental health professional, I began viewing things through a trauma lens as it became clearer that individuals, families, schools, organizations …basically every system having been traumatically impacted. The most vulnerable of the groups were those children/youth who were already affected by abuse, neglect, substance use and/or poverty. School for many of these children/youth was the only ‘safe haven’ as highlighted so well in the article ‘COVID-19: Athlete Impact, The Real Miami’ written by Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat basketball team. 

Schools closing here in New Jersey has impacted 1.3 million school-aged children/youth in ways similarly described by Haslem. The more than 580 school districts throughout the state shifted instruction to online platforms, which was an amazing feat in and of itself, attempting to ensure that students had access to a computer and the internet. Internet providers along with others began to offer reduced or free access to Wi-Fi so as to bring as many students to their new virtual learning world. Many school districts continued to offer breakfast and lunches to students. We as a community began to do the best we could in spite of the extraordinary circumstances.  

Even though four months have passed and some states have begun to move from sheltering-in to the ‘restart’ there is still a real need to fully comprehend the immense scope of the trauma. As Rebekka Schaffer (Workforce Development and Conference Coordinator, Center for Innovation in Population Health) wrote so eloquently in her recent blog ‘Unprecedented Transformation’ we have an opportunity to move away from the status quo to make meaningful systemic and transformational changes as we move forward. Expanding upon the powerful sentiments written by Rebekka we must first deeply understand the Systemic Interfunctional Trauma (SIFT) of COVID-19 the worldwide pandemic.   

If we accurately want to discovery the ‘what’ connected to COVID-19 using a communimetric perspective it will only make sense if it takes place within a Systemic Interfunctional Trauma (SIFT) context. There needs to be an understanding from the context of the inter-dynamic nature of systems directly impacting children/youth, families, communities, states, countries and the world. It is with this deeper understanding that the needs of that child/youth will become clearer after such unprecedented events connected to COVID-19. Then as a ‘team’ we can more effectively assist in transformational planning. However, we must additionally recognized that all team members including their family, school, and community have also been significantly impacted. It will be with this deeper understanding that systems partners-schools, communities and government officials-meaningfully develop a ‘shared vision’ so that all children/youth and families can be best served moving forward in our post-pandemic world.  

So how can we help children & youth now? There are four concrete strategies which we all can use to help support and reassure our young people-listen, observe, assess and engage

As learned from the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs research studyearly traumatic life events can have a tremendous impact on someone’s future physical, emotional and psychological health. The simple act of listening to a child/youth so that they can be both heard and understood can be paramount in managing the impact of ‘social distancing.’ According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University2 building connections or connecting children with other people, schools and communities not only helps to build their support system but will support their development of resilience.  

Many children/youth after being home and ‘sheltered-in’ have disconnected socially with not only their peers but also with non-related adults. Active observations of verbal and non-verbal interactions can give us a window on how they are doing expressing themselves. A possible outcome of social isolation may be the struggle to reconnect with others, including lack of eye contact, tone of voice and an overall change in body language/posture. When we see this change adults can support them with reassurance and patience. Modeling positive interactions and communication for our children/youth provides examples that can speak louder than most words we may use. 

If they and their families have experienced drastic changes in their lives we must assess specific needs-a valid and reliable communication tool used throughout the United States, Canada and the world is the Child Adolescent Needs & Strengths or CANS tools3. The CANS is an open domain and free to use multi-purpose tool developed for children’s services to support decision making, including level of care and service planning, to facilitate quality improvement initiatives, and to allow for the monitoring of outcomes of services. Since the CANS was developed from a communication perspective it is easy to use and understand which makes it well liked by youth, parents, providers and other partners including schools.  

We must engage various stakeholders or systems throughout the restart Post COVID-19. There will be phases or stages outlined by local, state and federal departments-including education, health, legislative and public safety as we move beyond the sheltering in state where all have been for the past three months. The lack of communication will increase fear while strengthening the silos that we as a society have fostered for many decades. Instead we all must take an active role at the ‘table’ in order to prevent a disastrous outcome, not only including the resurgence of the virus but the ability to plan for everyone’s ‘new-normal’ to positively impact every home, school, community and our country. 

This will be our starting point for intersecting mental health in the weeks, months and years ahead of us in the planning for a ‘restart’ in a post-pandemic world. It will also increase everyone’s sense of hope. Somnieng Houren, a former Cambodian monk (Harvard University graduate) shares his personal story of survival, why he believes HOPE is the most powerful force in the world. Gaining optimism allows the human spirit to regain the ability to redefine our future. It is with this social-emotional reconnection that the seed of optimistic planning will take hold in coming to an understanding of the tremendous losses experienced by our young people.  


  1. Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258. 
  1. Ginsburg, K. R., & Kinsman, S.B. (2014) Reaching Teens: Strength-based Communication Strategies to Build Resilience and Support Healthy Adolescent Development. American Academy of Pediatrics. 
  1. Child Adolescent Needs & Strengths (CANS) John Praed Foundation (2020) 

About the Author:

Kenneth McGill, EdS LMFT is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapy- Clinical Fellow with the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy (AAMFT) for over 20 years and President of New Jersey Association for Marriage and Family Therapy-Independent Affiliate (NJAMFT-IA). He is also a Senior Training Consultation Specialist in the Behavioral Research Training Institute with the University of Behavioral Health Care at the Rutgers University-serving the New Jersey Division of Children’s System of Care in New Jersey. As a published author and researcher, Ken is the recipient of the Praed Foundation’s Outcomes Champion Award for work done to improve the quality of care for youth & families, especially in the area of increasing ways to collaborate with and empower individuals/families dealing with challenges.  

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