Social distancing. Lockdowns. Remote learning. Cancelled competitions. Postponed graduation. Prom shelved. Hanging out with friends curtailed. Meaningful life events gone forever.
The challenges facing teenagers during COVID-19 have been overwhelming. As the disappointments have piled up, so have mental health concerns.
“Missing out on major life events such as graduations, school dances, sporting events – which many teens have been looking forward to – can exacerbate feelings of frustration and disappointment,” said Jacquelin Esque, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the College of Medicine – Tucson and a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Banner – University Medical Center South Campus. “In addition to impacting their well-being, these important rites of passage and special events are important steps for teens to develop the social and emotional skills necessary for the upcoming transition to adulthood.”
Dr. Esque, who currently is treating teenagers, said that isolation is a contributor to “feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, loss and for some teens, depression." She says as teens have less exposure to social situations, they can have worsening anxiety that makes it difficult to return to school or other social situations.
“Although isolation impacts everyone, teenagers are uniquely affected due to the significant importance of bonding with peers during this stage of development,” Dr. Esque said.
“School closures, quarantines and virtual learning are also challenging for many teens. Some teens find it hard to focus when not in a classroom and easier to fall behind on work when they are not being actively engaged in a school setting. A major motivator for getting to school can be seeing friends, and without that, some teens lose interest in completing their work.
“Many teens also are burdened by family stressors that may be new or may have worsened during the pandemic, including financial difficulties, loss of loved ones and increased conflict between family members.”
While the emotional hardships teenagers face during the ongoing pandemic are unparalleled, the mental health crisis facing teens predates 2020.
According to a 2021 U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory addressing the youth mental health crisis being worsened by COVID-19, pre-pandemic “mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.
“Additionally, from 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students. Suicidal behaviors among high school students also increased during the decade preceding COVID, with 19% seriously considering attempting suicide, a 36% increase from 2009 to 2019, and about 16% having made a suicide plan in the prior year, a 44% increase from 2009 to 2019.”
In the advisory, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, writes, “All of that was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered young peoples’ experiences at home, at school, and in the community. The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.
“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place. Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable, and often preventable.”
The advisory includes background information, risk factors and specific, comprehensive guidelines with ways in which youth, family members and caregivers, educators, health care organizations and professionals, social media and tech companies, media organizations, foundations, employers, governments and community organizations can take action by rebuilding “in a way that refocuses our identity and common values, puts people first, and strengthens our connections to each other….(and) lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation.”
Additional resources from the Surgeon General’s report
If your teen is in crisis, get immediate help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- 8255, speak with trained counselors 24/7, or get help in other ways through the Lifeline.
How Right Now (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Resources for coping with negative emotions and stress, talking to loved ones, and finding inspiration
Youth Engaged 4 Change: Opportunities for youth to make a difference in their lives and in the world around them
Supporting Emotional Wellbeing in Children and Youth (National Academies of Medicine): Tools for children, teens, and parents to learn how to cope with challenges
Mental Health Resource Center (JED Foundation): Information about common emotional health issues and how to overcome challenges
Youth Wellbeing Initiatives (National Council for Mental Wellbeing): Collection of initiatives to improve mental wellbeing in youth and young adults
Kids, Teens, and Young Adults (National Alliance on Mental Illness): Resources for young people to get mental health support
One Mind PsyberGuide: A guide to navigating mental health apps and digital technologies
FindTreatment.gov (SAMHSA): Information on substance use and mental health treatment
Trevor Project: Suicide prevention and crisis intervention resources for LGBTQ+ young people
AAKOMA Mental Health Resources (The AAKOMA Project): Resources to support the mental health of youth of color and their caregivers
Mental Health for Immigrants (Informed Immigrant): Tips for managing the mental health of yourself and others