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A new report finds that the mental health effects of the pandemic are more likely to have a significant impact on teenagers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant living through multiple crises, including financial and disease-related ones, all at once.
These crises have taken a toll on our mental and physical health.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 4 in 10 adults in the United States have reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms during the pandemic.
But a poll from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital shows that the mental health effects of the pandemic are more likely to have a significant impact on teenagers.
The restrictions of the pandemic have been felt across the board. For teenagers, restrictions have meant months of virtual learning, more time isolated from friends, and the canceling of important social activities like sports, school performances, graduations, and proms.
According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine, a national poll shows that 46 percent of parents say their teen had shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
“Teenage years are filled with physical, emotional, and cognitive changes. There are also hormonal shifts, more independence and responsibility, and peer challenges,” said Brittany LeMonda, PhD, senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “It is therefore not surprising that teens have been more susceptible to declines in psychological health over the last year.”
The poll looked at responses based on 977 parents of teenagers between 13 and 18 years old. The results suggest that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 teen boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety.
Going deeper, the results show that more parents of teen girls than parents of teen boys noted an increase in anxiety and worry (36 percent versus 19 percent) or depression/sadness (31 percent versus 18 percent).
Regardless of a pandemic, a large portion of teenagers will meet the criteria for a anxiety, depression or other mental condition.
One in three adolescents (31.9 percent) will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18.
According to the Child Mind Institute, 14.3 percent of teens will be affected by depression and bipolar disorder.
With the added trauma of the global pandemic, it’s not a surprise that teens are one of the most affected groups.
“What we see is not surprising in the pool,” said Dr. Jess Shatkin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist leading educational efforts of the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health.
“Since 1999, when the surgeon general did their first report on mental health in families and children, it showed that about 20 percent of kids suffer from major psychiatric disorders,” Shatkin said. “These can be mild, from adjustment to divorce, while some will be more severe, like anxiety, mood disorders, and schizophrenia. All of these increase with added stress.”
The pandemic has forced teens to be removed from normal social, physical, and educational interactions.
The poll’s results show that kids have been hardest hit by changes in social interactions over the past year, with 3 in 4 parents reporting a negative impact on their teen’s connections to friends.
The parents report that 64 percent of their teens have been texting, while 56 percent are using social media, 43 percent online gaming, and 35 percent talking on the phone every day or almost every day.
The minority of parents reported that their teens have been meeting with friends daily, indoors (9 percent) or outdoors (6 percent).
“When kids are depressed, we try to engage them so they don’t stay in and isolate. We call it behavioral activation,” added Shatkin.
Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, this all becomes a much greater challenge when staying in and isolating becomes the only way to stay physically safe and curb the spread of the virus.
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The research shows that parents during the pandemic have reported negative changes in their teen’s sleep patterns, withdrawal from family, and aggressive behavior.
These symptoms can be signs of depression or anxiety. Parents should watch for teens exhibiting these behaviors or other major changes in behavior due to the added stress of being removed from their usual experiences.
“Parents should be aware of warning signs, such as withdrawal and isolation from others, drop in grades, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, substance use, apathy, and suicidal thoughts,” said LeMonda. “Early detection of anxiety and depression can lead to early intervention and better treatment outcomes.”
The poll findings also tapped into methods that parents have used to improve their teens’ mental health. Experts recommend:
Fifty-two percent of parents polled have tried relaxing family COVID-19 rules to allow for contact with friends, while 47 percent also said they have loosened social media restrictions. Eighty-one percent and 70 percent said both of these helped, respectively.
Talking with a mental health professional is always a strong option, with or without severe symptoms of depression or anxiety. One in four parents said they sought help for their teen, and 74 percent of those said that it had a positive effect.
Twenty-five percent of parents encouraged their teen to try a web program or app to improve mental health. Apps are often less intimidating because they are efficient and portable.
One in seven parents reported that their teen has withdrawn from the family. This can be concerning for a parent so they may try to overcompensate.
It can be more effective to demonstrate that teens are not alone by sharing one’s own insecurities and fears surrounding our changed world, as well as sharing personal coping strategies and asking questions to help create a safe space.
One in four parents reported that their teens had had a negative change to their sleep patterns.
Creating a regular sleep schedule to fit with an online learning schedule, or creating responsibilities around the house and encouraging interaction with friends and family, can all contribute to a more healthy sleep routine.
“For parents who are able to and are around the house, it can be good to try to exercise with your kids most days,” said Shatkin. “This can be jogging, walking the dog, playing tennis, or whatever you can do safely outside.”
He also suggested building in activities or expanding on teens’ responsibilities to help give them a sense of purpose. This can be a family movie night, family cleaning, or having kids help plan meals or cook.
“Kids sometimes get a pass on these because parents are busy or end up doing it themselves. Now, there is an opportunity to enhance that,” he said.
The most important thing to remember is that mental illness can begin at the earliest of ages. Waiting until teens reach their 20s or 30s to deal with mental health can be detrimental.
“We have a huge opportunity to identify these issues early and also prevent a lot of them,” said Shatkin.