Over 3.8 million teens experienced at least one episode of major depression in 2019. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the following year, causing feelings of isolation and uncertainty. It’s safe to say that the pandemic has not been kind to our mental health.
Whether you’re a parent, an educator, or a concerned friend, you need to know the signs of mental health struggles in adolescents and teenagers. Depression, anxiety, and stress can lead to self-harm and suicide if not managed.
Let’s take a close look at the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of teens, and how you can help.
The teen years are a tumultuous rollercoaster ride. Even without a pandemic raging in the background, teens struggle with mental health issues. According to the CDC, more than 30% of high school students face episodes of depression: a number that has increased 40% over the past decade!
Furthermore, 1 in 6 teens considered taking their own life – a startling 44% increase since 2009. High school and adolescence can be a very confusing time, for some more than others.
Reports of attempted suicides are highest for students in the LGBTQ+ community and minority groups. Students who face identity or sexuality struggles might feel isolated. Their families may not be accepting of change, and opening up to friends can be scary.
The pandemic has thrown these teens into deeper isolation. The results can be disastrous, as seen in one Las Vegas school district. In July 2020, 19 students attending the Clark County district committed suicide.
A large study on teen mental health during the pandemic reported an increase in negative emotions in adolescents. Teens stated they felt more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
The reasons for these increased mental health struggles vary from teen to teen. Their home life, support circle, and prior mental health issues play a role.
But there are some common reasons why adolescents might be feeling more depressed and why many choose self-harm or suicide as a way to cope during this uncomfortable time.
Educational settings have the highest number of students in treatment out of all the possible in-person services. More than 3.7 million teens used their school’s mental health support services in 2019. School health and wellness counselors might be the most accessible option for adolescents.
With nationwide school closures, students lose access to these essential services. For some families, clinical or online therapy might be too expensive. Others might not approve of their teens receiving counseling.
Even districts that haven’t closed schools might be operating without support services. And with no one to talk to, teens can feel more isolated and hopeless.
A change that teens had to adapt to was the transition to online learning. While there are many benefits to this method, one of the biggest downsides is the lack of structure.
Without the close monitoring of the teacher in a classroom setting, teens can get away with much more. For example, many schools don’t enforce turning the camera on during class time. Students can log in to their class and do something entirely different.
The results can be falling behind on work and struggling to maintain good grades. The lack of a physical connection can also make it harder to participate in the class. Students might be more shy and self-conscious about speaking on camera.
With declining grades and lack of enthusiasm, teens might lose hope for the future. The pandemic has made many people’s futures uncertain. But adolescents planning to take the SATs or apply to college are most affected.
Everyone knows the importance of a teen’s social life. Friends, social dynamics, and time away from family are crucial in forming an identity. But Covid-19’s social distancing rules have put a stop to that.
With less time spent with friends, teens might feel lonelier. And although they can communicate electronically, many feel that’s not enough. One study suggests that teens need more emotional connections than texting can provide.
Adolescents also reported less support from their friend groups during this time. With reduced face-to-face time, relationships quickly deteriorate.
Of course, the pandemic not only affects adolescents but adults as well. 71% of parents reported extra stress during Covid-19. The reasons include worrying about infections, online classes, and schedule disruptions.
Parents might also be dealing with financial issues, spreading Covid-19, and family deaths. These high-stress situations trickle down to the teen, who takes on their parents’ worries.
Not only that, but many teens have to take on the role of caretaker for younger siblings. While parents work, older siblings suddenly find themselves with more household responsibilities. Taking care of younger brothers and sisters can be very stressful, adding more anxiety.
Some studies show that parents are on the brink due to increased stress. The result is tougher parenting, harsher punishments, and weakened relationships.
Now teens have to deal with the pressure of their parents’ new rules. Unexpected changes are hard to process and can come out as anger, sadness, or anxiety. As the pandemic drags on, teens might lose hope that things will ever go back to normal and fall into depression.
Teens living in high-risk homes could face more violence and abuse during the pandemic. With lockdowns and social distancing in place, they don’t have an escape from dysfunctional homes. They might feel trapped with their abuser, which can have major impacts on mental health.
While stuck at home, teenagers might spend more time online. Keeping up with friends, learning new things, and having a creative outlet are great benefits. But there are downsides to too much unsupervised screen time.
A large number of studies show that too much time on social media can lead to:
Unsupervised screen time can also lead teens to some unsavory online places. They might have more access to violent and sexually explicit images and other harmful content.
A big factor in the rise of anxious thoughts is the fear of catching Covid-19. Being bombarded with updates and statistics, teens might feel a loss of control. It’s difficult not to spiral into depression when the world is experiencing such an event.
Teenagers might know people who have caught the virus, and they might even know someone who died from it. Mourning the loss of family and friends can increase feelings of sadness. Add in a lack of mental health services, and the risk for depression skyrockets.
If you know a young person dealing with the effects of Covid-19, you can help. Knowing the signs of depression, self-harm, and suicidal thinking is essential.
Since teens can experience mood swings, it might be hard to spot the first signs of depression. Depression has emotional and physical symptoms, so it’s crucial to look out for both.
Emotional signs of depression include:
Your teen might also have difficulty concentrating and remembering things. Being distracted by inner thoughts is a common symptom of depression and can show up in school work. If you see your teen’s grades slipping, it might be a good idea to talk about depression.
Physical symptoms of depression can include:
Teens may also act out by engaging in risky behavior and substance abuse. In some instances, they might also resort to self-harm.
Self-harm can often be a coping mechanism for other mental health issues. Cutting the skin is a common method. But some teens choose to scratch, burn, or pick scars until they bleed.
Some common signs of self-harm include:
Self-harm often occurs in times of extreme distress. It’s also one of the first predictors of future suicide attempts.
Experts agree that one of the biggest deterrents to suicide is open communication between parents and children. If you’re worried that your teen is thinking about suicide, talking to them is crucial.
Signs of suicidal thinking can mirror depression, with a few additional symptoms. These include:
Substance abuse and other mental health disorders contribute to suicidal thinking. If you know a teen who shows these signs, try to get professional help as soon as possible.
As a parent, educator, or friend, you can help someone deal with their mental health issues. Sometimes, all they need is a compassionate person to listen. Other times, professional help through therapy and medication is the solution.
If a teen approaches you with depression or suicide on their mind, it’s vital to remain poised. Reacting emotionally might be the wrong response. Instead, listen to their thoughts and feelings in a calm, open way.
Respond in a solution-oriented manner and help them see that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Simply dispelling the idea that everything is hopeless can help set them on the right path. But if that doesn’t help, you may have to suggest professional treatment.
Options include inpatient and outpatient programs. Inpatient treatment requires the teen to live at the facility for a few weeks or months.
There, they receive round-the-clock care from a team of mental health professionals. Therapy, holistic approaches, and medication often make up the treatment plan. Teens can benefit from individual and group therapy, making them feel less isolated.
Outpatient treatment focuses on constant visits to the treatment facility. These can be several times a week, weekly, or even bi-weekly.
Intensive outpatient programs include individual and group therapy every day. Teens often participate in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), learning new skills to manage their mental health.
Avoiding depression, self-harm, and suicidal thinking is not easy in a time of distress. But there are a few ways to improve teen health through natural methods.
If you’re a parent, encourage your children to:
If you’re an educator, you can help your teen students by:
These suggestions won’t guarantee a decrease in risk, but they might encourage teens to be more open about their feelings. And openness leads to good communication, reducing the chances of suicide or self-harm.
An unprecedented global pandemic is nearly impossible to survive without some negative feelings. If those feelings become too intense, the results can be devastating. Depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide are risks for everyone, including teens.
If you’re a parent of a teen who is experiencing mental health issues stemming from the pandemic, we can help. At Enhance Health Group in Irvine, CA, we offer a specialized adolescent program. Contact us today to set up an initial assessment and get your teen the help they need!