As the global pandemic continues, researchers are looking at how COVID-19 will impact mental health—including adolescent mental health. From fear of disease to the psychological effects of isolation and the economic downturn, the crisis combines multiple factors that negatively affect well-being. And teenagers may be among the demographics that suffer most.
With less life experience and perspective than adults and an emotion-regulation system that’s still under development, teens have fewer inner resources to draw on. In addition, those who are attending remote schooling and are limited in their social interactions suffer from being separated from peers during a stage of life that is typically focused on creating connections in the world outside the family. Moreover, research shows that remote schooling has left many children and teens without access to mental healthcare.
Mental Health Effects of Isolation and the Pandemic
What has made the global pandemic so harmful to mental health is the combination of issues it has created. Social isolation early in the pandemic, financial instability and job loss, remote schooling, and fear related to health concerns all have proven negative impacts on state of mind. Taken individually—not to mention together—each of these elements has been shown to cause anxiety, depression, and distress. As a result, people with existing mental health conditions may experience worsened symptoms, and substance abuse and suicide attempts may increase, according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).
Published on April 21, the report states, “As the pandemic wears on, it is likely the mental health burden will increase as measures taken to slow the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, business and school closures, and shelter-in-place orders, lead to greater isolation and potential financial distress.” A KFF poll taken in April found that seven out of 10 adults in the United States say their lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus crisis. And one in five say the global pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.
How Remote Schooling Impacts Adolescent Mental Health
Along with the mental health effects of isolation and the emotional impact of being separated from friends and teachers, many adolescents are cut off from mental healthcare during remote schooling, according to an article published April 14 in the Lancet. The most recent statistics from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health show that 13.2 percent of adolescents received mental health services in a school setting—some 3 million adolescents.
Overall, 57 percent of adolescents who received mental healthcare access those services in school. Some of these teens receive services from a school-based clinician. Others attend specialized schools for behavioral or emotional problems, or are enrolled in specialized programs at their local school.
Survey Shows Adolescent Mental Health Is Suffering
Early in the pandemic, in March 2020, the mental health charity YoungMinds surveyed some 2,000 young people in the United Kingdom with a history of mental illness. Results included the following:
- 83 percent said the pandemic had made their mental health conditions worse
- Deteriorating mental health was among the top three concerns of young people
- 26 percent were unable to access mental healthcare
- Loss of routine was particularly hard on adolescents
- Peer support groups had been cancelled
- Adolescents had difficulty accessing phone or online support.
Since depression and anxiety in adolescents was already high prior to COVID-19, public health experts agree that increased services aimed at supporting adolescent mental health should be a priority at this time.
Two Factors That Are Supporting Teen Mental Health
Despite the threats to adolescent mental health presented by the pandemic, a new report issued by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution shows that American teenagers did better than expected during the spring and summer quarantine. Led by Jean Twenge, known for her in-depth research on technology use and teen mental health, the research team surveyed 1,523 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in May, June, and July of 2020. Teens were asked questions about their mental health, family time, sleep, screen time, and views on race-related protests and the police. Twenge and her team then compared their answers to the findings of the most recent Monitoring the Future survey, tracking teen mental health trends in 2018.
Surprisingly, the results showed that rates of teen depression and loneliness were actually lower this year than in 2018, while unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life were only slightly higher. The researchers credited these unexpectedly positive outcomes to two trends in how teens were using their time:
- Getting more sleep: In 2018, only 55 percent of teens slept at least seven hours, while during the pandemic, 84 percent got more shuteye—partly because they could sleep later since they were going to school online. This is a significant factor in terms of mental health, since sleep deprivation is directly connected to depression in adolescents.
- Spending more time with family: With the majority of family members spending far more time at home during the quarantine, nearly 60 percent of the teens surveyed said that they were talking to their parents more than they had prior to the pandemic, including eating dinner together. And a full 68 percent said their families had become closer during this time. This kind of positive family connection helps to buffer teens against depression and other mental health challenges.
“Teens who spent more time with their families during the pandemic and who felt their families had grown closer were less likely to be depressed,” the study authors wrote. “Thus, it appears that one of the primary foundations for teen resilience during the pandemic is family support and connection.”
Helping Teens Care for their Mental Health at Home
As the research makes clear, parents need to be on high alert in regard to adolescent mental health. Here are some ways teens and families can increase resilience and positivity during this difficult time.
- Acknowledge that anxiety is natural right now, and we’re all feeling it. Validating our shared anxiety around the global pandemic can help teens feel less alone. However, consider limiting exposure to news, or help your teen find age-appropriate and reputable media outlets.
- Stay connected. Movie nights, Zoom birthday parties, and virtual get-togethers with extended family can enhance a sense of connection. If safe to do so, teens can meet a friend for a socially distanced walk, as long as they are responsible about maintaining the six-foot separation.
- Connect at home, too. The time at home is an opportunity for parents and kids to communicate more, do daily activities together, and come up with projects to undertake as a family, such as planting a garden or decluttering the house.
- Establish a schedule. Help teens settle into a daily routine that includes physical exercise (perhaps using video workouts or attending a Zoom class), creative projects such as making a film or journaling, social connection, and family time.
- Consume uplifting media. Watching a comedy or TV series, reading engaging novels, and listening to high-energy music can all help lift mood and provide healthy distraction for teens.
- Practice mindfulness. Yoga, breathing practices, and guided relaxation, using videos or apps, can help teens manage their emotions and stay calm. Apps or videos offer guided meditations and yoga classes that teens can do on their own or the whole family can do together.
- Spend time in nature.Get outdoors as a family as much as possible, whether in a nearby park, in your neighborhood, or in your backyard. Time in nature supports mood and immune-system function.
- Let them feel what they feel. Don’t try to talk your teen out of the sadness and disappointment they may be feeling about missing out on sports and year-end school events. This may be particularly true for high school seniors. Offer compassion and understanding in response to their emotions.
Warning Signs of Adolescent Mental Health Challenges
It’s understandable that teen behavior right now will reflect higher levels of discomfort and distress as a result of the global pandemic. But a clinical assessment is warranted if they are exhibiting the following symptoms for two weeks or more:
- Lack of interest in connecting with friends or family
- Ongoing difficulty sleeping and/or eating; frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Using alcohol or other substances to manage their emotions
- Inability to concentrate; drop in grades
- Extreme feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts.
If parents notice these symptoms, the first step is to talk to your teen. Find a time when they’re calm and you can talk privately, not in front of siblings. Mention the behaviors you’re concerned about, but don’t presume to know what they’re thinking. Instead, ask them open-ended questions about their thoughts and emotions. Let them know how much you love them and care about their well-being.
Some teens may not be interested in the idea of speaking with a mental health professional, but others may welcome the conversation. Either way, it’s important for them to get the help they need. Many therapists and treatment centers are offering virtual assessments and care to meet adolescent mental health needs during this unprecedented time.
Newport Academy can help you access the help your family needs. Call us anytime.
Lancet. 2020 April 14. doi:10.1016.
JAMA Pediatr. 2020 April 14. doi:10.1001.
JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(12):e193336.
J Sch Health. 2019 May;89(5):393–401.