Pandemic-Induced Mental Health Issues Are at an All-Time High for Teens

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Adolescents and young adults are being hit particularly hard by the emotional, physical and mental side effects of living during COVID-19.

While the pandemic has taken its toll on everyone, recent research shows that’s it’s had an especially profound impact on the mental health of teens and young adults. This past August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a quarter of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 had considered suicide in the previous 30 days. Online learning, social distancing and the lack of extracurricular activities conspired to make 2020 an unbearable year—mentally and physically—for young people. “Over the 18 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen this type of anxiety and stress,” says Matthew Gelber, a psychotherapist who practices in Devon.

At the Yang Institute in Bryn Mawr, complaints about virtual schooling dominate. “[Some are] having trouble coping with being with family members under the same roof for so long,” says Dr. Jingduan Yang.

Credit the change of seasons—at least in part. “Losing the longer days and outdoor activities [of summer] made life even harder,” says Sheila Gillin, clinical director at Minding Your Mind in Ardmore.

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That seasonal shift is reflected in numbers from the Household Pulse Survey, a rapid-delivery data system created by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. During the last week of May 2020, 39 percent of respondents ages 1829 reported symptoms related to depression and generalized anxiety disorder. That rose to 49 percent in December. Lately, Gelber’s standard one-hour sessions often last two hours. Pre-COVID, he’d talk a patient through a panic attack a few times a year. Now, he’s doing it “two or three times a week.”

Because this is frighteningly new for many young people, most are dealing with treatments and coping mechanisms they’ve never used. A good first step is listening to others who’ve been there. “Survivors telling their recovery and coping stories can be powerful tools to reduce the stigma about mental illness and empower kids,” says Gillin.

Photo by Ed Williams

Yang uses his medical training and experience to target biochemical and neuropsychological imbalances. “We identify the imbalance and neutralize that with medication and nutrients,” he says.

Exercising can help, even if it’s just going for a walk. Gelber has contacted physical trainers for his clients. “Physical activity really does release endorphins that make you feel better generally,” he says. “It relaxes you and gets you to a point where you feel more like yourself.”

At-home coping techniques can also be effective. First, accept the current situation. “Without that, you’re always going to be upset and resentful,” Yang says. “Have healthy foods, get efficient, restful sleep, and enjoy family togetherness. Turn those negatives into positives.”

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Gillin suggests maintaining a structured routine. “Have meals at the same time; get up at the same time,” she says. “Trying to stick to that on a day-to-day basis is important.”

Journaling can be a strong coping mechanism. “Write down all these negative thoughts and read them the next day,” she says. “Check off things you can fix. The things you can’t fix, throw out. Don’t overwhelm yourself.”

Gillin cautions that problems won’t disappear when the pandemic subsides. “The vaccine is a sign of a little bit of hope, but kids are still really struggling,” she says.

But Gelber sees reason to hope. “We’re going to come out better than we were before,” he says.

In the meantime, help is always available. Parents and teachers can offer support and guidance—and stay connected to family and friends, even if it’s through Zoom or FaceTime. “Social interaction is key to mental health,” says Gillin.

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