The COVID Pandemic and Teen Mental Health
Updated: Mar 3, 2022
It is without doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has changed our way of daily life.
Whether an adult or child, many of us have felt times of stress, worry, loss of connection,
Now imagine being a teen during the pandemic. This means months of virtual school, less time with friends, and canceling activities like sports, band concerts, and prom. As a teen, your most important connections are likely friends and peer relationships. How would you react?
As you can assume, covid-related lifestyle changes have wreaked havoc on teens’ lives. The pandemic has disrupted normal routines and has negatively affected the ability for social interaction. For teens who rely heavily on social connections for emotional support, these adjustments are likely to take a heavy toll on their mental health.
For parents or those who work with youth, you may wonder if what you’re seeing in your teen is normal behavior, or something more concerning. Let’s take a closer look at some of the things that we have been seeing in teens throughout the pandemic:
A national poll administered by the University of Michigan set out to answer our very question; how is the pandemic affecting older kids and teens?
After surveying 977 parents of youth ages 13-18, they found that pandemic-era changes have negatively impacted teen’s mental health. Nearly HALF of the parents reported new or worsening mental health conditions in their teen since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
The data shows that over 30% of teen girls and nearly 20% of teen boys are experiencing new or worsening anxiety and depressive symptoms. These numbers are rattling to me… and I’ll tell you why.
Pre-pandemic, the amount of anxiety that we were seeing in youth was at an all-time high and was already considered to be very alarming. Anxiety had already been a chronic issue over the last number of years and has been a concern for health care professionals, school personnel and family members – pre-pandemic!
We’ve been watching the anxiety go up for a number of years already, and now we're talking about an additional 30% of teen girls and nearly 20% of teen boys who are experiencing new or worsening anxiety. That’s substantial when you put it on top of a high anxiety level that a lot of youth are already experiencing.
Thinking back to the beginning of COVID, there were a lot of unknowns. We had all these questions about COVID, which led to worrying for a lot of people. Teens heard about how older people were dying regularly and may have been concerned about family members, friends, or themselves getting sick. This created some anxiety for all of us as the uncertainty was a little scary, and then just the regular aspect about the concern for safety.
We can see from the graph above that a higher percentage of teen girls are experiencing anxiety, depression, sleep issues, withdrawal from family, and aggression. Another study found that emergency department visits for attempted suicide have risen 51% among adolescent females. It’s not entirely clear why girls are ranking higher in every area – it might be related to how females socialize and how that’s had to change for them, or it may be that boys are not disclosing symptoms that they are experiencing quite as much as girls. Whatever the case, it is interesting to see that more girls are experiencing worsening mental health over the course of the pandemic.
75% of parents that were polled reported that the covid restrictions have affected their teen’s connection to friends. Why is that important? Think about what is important to teens – friends, peer relationships. These are the people that are having the most influence on their life right now and who teens need to connect with. Just as they are at the age of being biologically primed to seek independence from their families, COVID precautions have kept them at home. This very important connection has been affected to the level of 75% of kids – that’s a pretty high number.
The isolation is likely the biggest part of the increase in mental health conditions in youth. Teens have lost a big chunk of time that is important for their development around social and emotional skills and connecting with others. They have been taught to avoid people in the grocery store, to not get close to people, and they weren’t able to go to school or connect with friends. Teens need to have peer connections to learn and practice social skills. Developmentally, teens already struggle with a sense of belonging, and here we have increased their feelings of disconnection and have taken away many of their opportunities for them to feel like they’re valued.
We are seeing that this lack of opportunity to learn social and emotional skills has affected younger kids too. Developmentally, this is a time when they are learning how to read facial cues, understand how people may be feeling, and develop empathy. Having masks on our faces for so long has deprived younger kids of some of those chances to learn about what someone is expressing through their face or their body.
Additionally, we’ve seen that the LGBTQ+ community are being even more negatively affected by the pandemic. According to research, LGBTQ + youth are at a significantly higher risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicide under normal circumstances. With the pandemic, this becomes even more intensified with 80% of LGBTQ + youth experiencing worsening mental health. Again, this goes back to lack of connection and isolation. LGBTQ + youth may not find the kind of support they need in their home, and they have lost the opportunity to attend youth groups or connect with other teens that they can relate to and feel comfortable talking to.
As we are seeing COVID regulations affecting our mental health in quite substantial ways, it feels appropriate to say that the trauma caused by the pandemic may be long-lasting and needs to be addressed.
Many youth are experiencing a lot of hard stuff, whether that’s loss of social connection, increased anxiety, or worsening depression. As adults, we are experiencing a lot of difficulty also. Try to remind yourself that there is always hope, even when things are really hard. Be patient with the process and remind yourself that there are positives that will come.
So, how do we tell if what we’re seeing in a teen is a normal reaction, or something more concerning? Take a look at our “Common Mental Health Conditions in Teens” blog to get a better idea of what is typical for youth to experience.
Written by Amanda Holst, restART Studio Executive Director
(1) National Poll: Pandemic Negatively impacted teens’ mental health
(2) C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, 2021