- Depressive and anxiety symptoms in youth doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms.
- Symptoms of depression had already been rising in teens in recent years.
- Data from early 2021 shows that emergency room visits in the U.S. for suspected suicide attempts were 51 percent higher for girls and 4 percent higher for boys compared to the same period in early 2019.
As we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, another health crisis is rising quickly behind it. The U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory on the mental health challenges that children and teenagers are facing in the midst of the pandemic.
According to the Surgeon General’s report, depressive and anxiety symptoms in youth doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Beyond that, data from early 2021 shows that emergency room visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51 percent higher for girls and 4 percent higher for boys compared to the same period in early 2019.
Depression and anxiety in youth pre-pandemic
Depression and anxiety levels have been rising for kids and teenagers even before the pandemic. In 2019, 1 in 3 high school students and half of female students reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year that they couldn’t participate in their regular activities, which is an increase of 40 percent since 2009.
But because of pandemic-related protocols, including reduced in-person interactions among friends, social supports, and professionals, experts say that it became more difficult to recognize the signs of child abuse, mental health issues, and other concerns.
“Social isolation through the pandemic, stress in school, conflict at home with parents who are also highly stressed creates a powder keg in the house. Everyone has been dealing with an emotional experience during COVID,” said Becky Lois, PhD.
Lois is co-director of the KiDS of NYU Foundation Integrated Behavioral Health Program at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone and a clinical psychologist in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone.
According to the World Health Organization’s Determinants of Adolescent Health Development, there are several factors that can shape the mental health of young people. These include social and economic inequalities, neighborhood safety, relationships at school and in community, relationships with family, as well as age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
Lois also pointed out that it wasn’t just the pandemic itself that caused stress. Children who face discrimination also face higher risk of anxiety and depression.
“A significant layer of this also has to do with the discrimination [in the U.S.] that has come to light. It increases the vulnerability for families of color, [as well as people struggling with] sexual identity and orientation,” Lois said.
How can parents spot early warning signs of depression or anxiety in teens?
Because the day-to-day activities of everyone in the household during a pandemic may be different from years prior, experts say that it may be possible that parents overlook a child’s mental health struggle.
However, there are some common warning signs to look out for.
“Signs of depression and anxiety in youth can be distancing, social withdrawal, lack of interest in activities they once engaged in, feeling sad and down, restless, and fearful,” said Lois. “Younger children can be irritable, act out, or can complain of physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches.”
Lois says that if you notice these things starting to happen, or if patterns are different in your child, it could be indications that they’re going through something stressful.
“It doesn’t mean your kid is anxious or depressed. They may not meet the threshold for clinical diagnosis. But if you’re seeing them act differently it’s great to be aware to catch it early and try to intervene before stress escalates and impairs their ability to function,” she explained.
How to treat depression and anxiety in teens
One of the most important ways to help kids who are struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression is simply to talk about it.
“Have a conversation about how hard things are. Normalize and validate that experience for your child,” said Lois. “Just being able to have a conversation and acknowledge that things aren’t easy is a first step for parents to hear directly from their child how they are doing.”
If parents are concerned, they can also engage the school environment and contact counselors, psychologists, and social workers in a school setting who may be able to check in.
“Prevention and early intervention are the two key strategies to tackle the ever-increasing adolescent and youth mental health issues,” said Dr. Peng Pang, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Staten Island University Hospital.
The Surgeon General’s advisory pointed out that groups including community organizations, healthcare professionals, and government institutions, among others, can push to highlight the importance of paying attention to mental health.
“By investing in education on mental health topics using developmentally appropriate and culturally sensitive communication, we can all learn and participate in mental health prevention and build a strong healthy society,” Pang said.
Lois said that the fact that the surgeon general issued this report is a sign that people are taking the crisis seriously.
“I think it’s heartening that the surgeon general and the government at large is acknowledging this crisis of mental health in children and trying to activate our system,” said Lois. “Maybe this will activate the system and make it OK for people to raise their hand and say that they are not OK.”