How COVID-19 has affected teen mental health

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Experts say teens struggled with a variety of mental health issues even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ibai Acevedo/Stocksy United
  • High school students say they have faced a number of mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Among them are feelings of depression and sadness as well as verbal abuse from a parent.
  • Experts say teens were already facing mental health issues before the pandemic, and the restrictions imposed during this time have exacerbated these problems.
  • They say parents should listen to teens’ concerns, let them know they are supported, and recommend digital tools to help them cope.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shed new light on how difficult the COVID-19 pandemic is for high school students.

The agency published its first representative national survey of the mental state of adolescents during the COVID-19 epidemic.

In the survey, more than half – 55% – of secondary school students said they had experienced emotional abuse from an adult in their home. In addition, 11% say they have suffered physical violence.

The study reported that 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and 44% said they felt constantly sad or hopeless over the past year.

29% said a parent or other adult in their household lost their job during this time.

“These data echo a call for help,” said Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC’s acting senior deputy director, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being. Our research shows that surrounding young people with the right support can reverse these trends and help our young people now and in the future.

Young lesbians, gays, bisexuals and young women reported higher levels of poor mental health as well as emotional abuse from a parent or caregiver, the CDC reported. These groups also attempted suicide at a higher rate.

More than a third (36%) of students said they had experienced racism before or during the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest levels were reported among Asian students (64%) and Black students and students of multiple races (55% each).

The report’s authors said, “The survey cannot determine the extent to which events during the pandemic contributed to reported racism. However, youthful experiences of racism have been linked to poor mental health, academic achievement, and lifelong health risk behaviors.

Mental health professionals told Healthline the rising numbers were concerning but hardly surprising.

“We have to recognize that youth mental health was already a priority,” Ray Merenstein, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Colorado, told Healthline.

“In part, there are not enough beds, practitioners, school and other supports to meet a growing need exacerbated by a variety of factors even before the pandemic, (including) social media pressures, the stigma/bullying, academic pressure,” Merenstein said. “It’s like trying to build a bridge over a canyon but we don’t have all the materials to complete the project. Then the pandemic hit, making the canyon wider and the materials even more in demand. »

Merenstein said that before the pandemic, one in six young people between the ages of 6 and 17 in the United States suffered from a mental health disorder each year. It is now one in three.

Even without experiencing their own pandemic-related trauma, children were feeling the effects of what the adults around them were going through.

“When parents lose their jobs or get sick or have financial difficulties, it increases stress, which increases conflict, which increases cases of abuse, physical violence, arguments,” said Dr Megan Campbell , a child and adolescent psychiatrist at New Orleans Children’s Hospital. Health line. “Another example that compounds the problem: the opioid epidemic has worsened, which often exacerbates the difficult family dynamics and stressors that children are exposed to.”

“When children are isolated at home, they don’t have the benefit of the myriad of support opportunities outside the home: teachers, friends, coaches, administrators, counselors – who serve as role models, model healthy social interactions and, most importantly, notice and report when children are unwell or in need of social services, Campbell added.“Outlets where children have fun, learn skills and express themselves (teams , sports, clubs, activities, social events) have diminished or been eliminated with a pandemic People have been sick or afraid of getting sick.

“Our children are like sponges. If we experience collective trauma distress from COVID-19, they are likely to be affected as well,” added Anjali Ferguson, PhD, clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We have seen even greater disparities in health and outcomes for historically marginalized groups – those that existed long before the pandemic widened even further. Thus, placing many historically marginalized children at risk for negative childhood experiences – a known predictor of poor mental health outcomes.

Ferguson told Healthline that as of July 2021, about 1.5 million children in the United States have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19.

“That number has only gone up since then,” Ferguson said. “Additionally, 2020 also brought a race toll across the globe that highlighted the impacts of racial trauma/stressors on mental health and individual outcomes. Recent studies have noted that black teens report greater depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation after being exposed to videos of police brutality.

It’s a vulnerable age group even at the best of times, noted Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia.

“Adolescents were already dealing with feelings of helplessness, depression and other mental health impacts before COVID-19,” Patton-Smith told Healthline. “The pandemic has exacerbated these struggles and made it harder for teens to get help. It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s likely that without the pandemic, those percentages would have been considerably lower, but still rising.

“With disruptions to normal routines and the shift to virtual learning, students faced isolation, loneliness and loss of structure in their day,” Patton-Smith said. “Many adolescents have lost important bonds forged in the school environment, both with their peers and with school staff, which has caused many students to lose their support systems, which often provided them with a outlet to deal with issues they may be facing and helped identify students in need. of additional support.

In many cases, what high school students sought to fill the void with was just as harmful, said Nick Allen, HD, director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon.

“Many teenagers have also increased their use of social media, and while this probably protected them in many ways, as it allowed them to maintain some contact with their peers, the use of digital media may also have contributed to issues such as trouble sleeping or exposure to bullying,” Allen told Healthline.

Now that we know more about the impact of the pandemic on children, mental health professionals say parents and caregivers can get to work addressing some of the issues.

“I think the main thing parents need to do is check in with their kids and see how they’re doing emotionally,” Patton-Smith said. “Parents should not only listen to what their children tell them, they should also note any behavior that may signal that there are problems (irritability, crying, aggression, isolation).”

“Even if your child is struggling, children are very resilient and with the right support they can find a more balanced space,” she said. “It is important for parents and educators to reassure adolescents that they are supported and to ensure that their schools are inclusive and safe. Parents who notice significant changes in their child’s behavior should start with an open, non-judgmental conversation and reassure your child that help is available.

“Parents could encourage kids to use one of the many digital tools available to help with stress reduction and mindfulness practice, like the Calm app,” Patton-Smith said. “Contact your child’s mental health care provider or primary care physician if you are concerned about changes in your child’s behavior.

“The good news is that children and adolescents are extremely resilient and with the right support, they are likely to get through this difficult time with more resilience and new coping skills,” he said. she adds.


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