By Stephen Gray Wallace, featured in Psychology Today.
Even with a new subvariant of COVID-19 (BA.2) speeding our way, there is an undeniable feeling among the broader population that the sunset of this pandemic is soon to set. People across the land are ditching their facemasks – except where mandates are reappearing – packing restaurants and enjoying some of their favorite pastimes before March 2020. As they settle back into work and personal routines (and as the weather warms), there seems to be a pervasive sense of optimism about what’s ahead.
Nevertheless, a vast majority of Americans says we are experiencing a mental health crisis (Groppe and Elbeshbishi, 2022). Of course, children and teens are not immune to this psychological pandemic. In fact, teens are particularly at risk given the three primary developmental demands of adolescence: independence, identity formation, and peer relationships. In that context, it’s easy to see how today’s climate makes accomplishing those tasks even more difficult than usual.
And those constraints are unlikely to change anytime soon.
For many young people, even an official end of COVID will not release them from the grip of anxiety, insecurity, and isolation that has haunted them for the last two-plus years. In fact, the increasing rates of youth mental illness and suicide have been rising for some time.
Although the suicide rate of young people aged 10 to 24 declined from 2000 to 2007, it then almost tripled from 2007 to 2017, prior to the pandemic’s start (Curtin and Heron, 2019).
Flash forward to 2022, when the CDC reported that 4 in 10 adolescents say they feel persistently sad or hopeless and one in 5 reported they have considered suicide (CDC, 2022).
Many teens have struggled with online education, which, while necessary in some cases for public health reasons, only exacerbates unhealthy separation from their peers and caring adults other than their parents.
That separation, in turn, increases anxiety and its close cousin depression. Alone or in tandem, those conditions can acerbate or create physical ailments that may then accelerate the anxiety and depression that helped create the harm in the first place. Not surprising, many young people “self-medicate” emotional distress by turning to alcohol and other drugs. And those, of course, don’t help.
Another unhealthy way that some teens, especially girls, cope is by seeking alternative means of control such as self-regulation of diet. The proportion of emergency room visits for eating disorders has doubled among adolescent girls, and tic disorders have nearly tripled since the onset of COVID-19. Experts cite uncertainty, fear, and anxiety related to COVID-19.
A complicating factor for youth may come from a surprising place: Home.
Despite what we may assume is a truth, teens forced to stay at home during the pandemic were not always safe. According to CDC research, 55 percent of teen respondents to a poll said they suffered emotional abuse from a parent or another adult in their household and 11 percent reported physical abuse.
Even the easing of restrictions (now returning in some states) does not free the adolescent mind from trouble. Reentry into school presents to some teens as “overwhelming” anxiety. These teens will benefit from some parental coaching, and perhaps role-playing, on reacclimating to peers.
One of the staples of adolescent development may need a kickstart. Identity formation (who I am) is one of three cornerstones of adolescent growth (rounded out by independence and peer relationships). The isolation teens endured may have set back their healthy development by depriving them of in-person social feedback.
If there exists a panacea to the many woes engendered by COVID-19, it is the building of character and resilience. Pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg, an expert on resiliency in youth, has developed what he refers to as the “Seven C’s of Resilience.”
Ginsburg says these are interrelated and build on each other and offers, “In a society that fosters the importance of winning, we must reinforce that it is how we play the game that defines us.” He says parents can help by reinforcing in their teens the imperative to do the right thing and realize it’s not always the path of least resistance; reinforcing rather than preaching; showing empathy and honor sensitivity; role modeling core values; and counseling youth to forget about perfection and to work instead on improvements.
What with learning loss, social separation and, in many cases, the loss of important milestones and rites of passage, our kids may not be alright. But the understanding and coaching from caring adults can help the kids become so.
CDC. (2022). New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats during the COVID-19 pandemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 31, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0331-youth-mental-health-covid… (20 Apr. 2022).
Curtin, S. and M. Heron. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. No. 352. October 2019. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf (20 Apr. 2022).
Desautels, L. (2021). Helping students reacclimate to being with others all day. Social and Emotional Learning. Edutopia. November 4, 2021. https://www.edutopia.org/article/helping-students-reacclimate-being-oth… (20 Apr. 2022).
Ginsburg, K. (2018). Building character in teens. Center for Parent & Teen Communication. September 4, 2018. https://parentandteen.com/building-character-in-teens-one-of-the-7-cs-o… (20 Apr. 2022).
Groppe, M. and S. Elbeshbishi. (2022). Exclusive poll: Overwhelming majority says the US faces a mental health crisis. USA TODAY/Suffolk University National Poll. USA TODAY. January 8, 2022. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2022/01/08/mental-health-a… (20 Apr. 2022).
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Option B. (2022). The 7 C’s: practical ways to build resilience in kids. https://optionb.org/advice/the-7-cs-of-resilience-in-kids (20 Apr. 2022).
Radhakrishnan L., Leeb, RT, Bitsko RH, et al. (2022). Pediatric Emergency Department Visits Associated with Mental Health Conditions Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–January 2022. MMWR Morbity Mortality Weekly Report 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7108e2.htm (20 Apr. 2022).
Ries, J. (2022). Teens visiting ER for eating disorders doubled during pandemic. Healthline. March 7, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/number-teen-girls-in-the-er-for-… (20 Apr. 2022).