During the pandemic, children, adolescents and young adults have faced unprecedented challenges as COVID-19 has dramatically changed their world, including how they attend school, interact with friends and receive health care.
According to a 52-page advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, children missed first days of school, months or even years of in-person schooling, graduation ceremonies, sports competitions, playdates and time with relatives.
As of June 2021, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. had lost a parent or grandparent to COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, there have been increased rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.
“Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic with 25 percent of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms,” Dr. Murthy wrote in the advisory.
Negative emotions or behaviors such as impulsivity and irritability – associated with conditions such as ADHD – appear to have moderately increased, the advisory noted. Further, early clinical data also proved problematic.
In early 2021, emergency department visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts counted 51 percent higher for adolescent girls and 4 percent higher for adolescent boys compared to the same period in early 2019.
“Moreover, pandemic-related measures reduced in-person interactions among children, friends, social supports and professionals such as teachers, school counselors, pediatricians and child welfare workers,” Dr. Murthy’s advisory continued. “This made it harder to recognize signs of child abuse, mental health concerns and other challenges.”
The report further noted that young people also experienced other challenges that may have affected their mental and emotional well-being during the pandemic. These include the national reckoning over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers including the murder of George Floyd.
It also includes COVID-related violence against Asian Americans, gun violence, an increasingly polarized political dialogue, growing concerns about climate change, and emotionally charged misinformation.
“The pandemic has been challenging for most people, yet the teenage population, particularly females, have suffered tremendously,” said Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist.
“Given the importance of social connections during adolescence, many teens have felt extremely isolated, lonely and depressed as a result of the constraining nature of the pandemic,” Dr. Manly said. “Many teens have turned to social media use for connection, yet social media has its own host of stressors and often increases anxiety and can foster low self-esteem.”
Dr. Manly said parents and caregivers who have adolescents struggling with anxiety or depression often become confused and don’t know what course to take.
Many parents fear that talking about the issue will “only make matters worse.”
“Yet, in truth, teens – even the most independent ones – need their parents’ steady presence and gentle guidance,” Dr. Manly asserted.
Cathy Mills, director of strategy for Net Influencer, insisted it’s crucial to balance work life and mental health.
“I consider it very important that especially employers and family members support young people in the process of depression and anxiety,” Mills said. “Something that has worked with my family members is to propose a me-treatment to young people. People today are very focused on meeting the needs of others and forget that being well with oneself is the most important thing to be successful in all areas of life.”
“In these me-treatments, it is important to write in journals, do meditations, practice sports, dance and even travel alone. These actions will make young people feel more confident and have better mental health which will allow them to face any situation or challenge at work and in daily life.”
Dr. Jeannette R. Craigfeld, who practices clinical psychology at the Therapy Group of D.C. in Northwest, said friends and family must listen and understand the views of a loved one.
“Let them know that you’re willing to listen whenever they want to talk and that you can also just sit with them if that’s what they need,” Dr. Craigfeld said. “Give your loved one permission to be wherever they’re at with their depression and anxiety and that they don’t need to force themselves to seem okay around you.”
“Remember that there are no easy fixes for mental illness. This is difficult to do with someone you love, as it’s hard to hear that they’re in pain. Still, it’s important to remember that listening and understanding them will give them more relief from their depression and anxiety than anything else you could do. It’s also important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself as well, since it’s hard to care for others if you’re not at your best first. Permit yourself to take time for yourself whenever you need to and do things that are soothing for you,” Dr. Craigfeld said.