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Mental Health

COVID-19 AND THE YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS: WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW

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Middle and high school students have been in the center of a mental health crisis for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought the situation into sharp focus.  

A prominent effect for youth: Isolation 

COVID-19 safety measures, especially in spring and summer 2020, included limited physical contact with people outside a household. This meant many adolescents were away from their peer groups. 

Even as we ease back to normalcy, the loss of a social environment for an extended time is detrimental for adolescents, as brain development at that age is dependent on social interaction.  

“We absolutely foresaw this [in 2020],” says Mary Alvord, a psychologist in private practice in the Washington, D.C., metro area and the co-author of two books, including Conquering Negative Thinking for Teens. “Kids feel like they don’t have much control over their lives and now there’s even more uncertainty, with schools closed and peer groups—who play such a big role in the sense of self—unavailable. Their developmental process has been interfered with. Their trajectory has been interrupted.” 

For many, feelings of loneliness arose from the pandemic. For some, this isolation worsened an already existing mental illness.  

How many students are struggling? 

According to a recent TIME magazine article, treatment claims for anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders jumped to unprecedented numbers for youth ages 13-22 in March and April 2020, nearly doubling from spring 2019 levels.  

“We see [increased] depression and anxiety in all age groups, but in adolescence it’s on steroids,” says Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center. “When kids look into the future now, they’re looking at one that wasn’t what they envisioned before. ‘I used to be able to hang with my friends, and now that’s gone. I was looking forward to going to college, but my dad just got laid off and can’t afford it.’”  

These factors are translating into increased rates of substance abuse and drug overdoses. Even more alarming is an exponential jump in reports of intentional self-harm, which were up by as much 334% among 13-18 year-olds as of August 2020, based on study data reported in the TIME article.  

“That kind of pain is too easy to self-medicate with chemical substances—and kids did just that,” writes Jeffrey Kluger for TIME. “In the 13- to 18-year-old group, claims for drug overdoses increased 95% in March and 119% in April. For substance abuse that stopped short of overdosing, the numbers were 65% and 63% in those months, respectively. In the 19-22 group, the peak increase for overdoses was a 65% jump in May; substance abuse in general topped out at a 27% increase in April.” 

The numbers are startling. Our youth need help. 

What can I do as a parent? 

Open conversation is crucial to successful parenting, but especially when mental health is at stake. If you suspect your child is struggling, or they tell you they are struggling, don’t let the conversation die off.  

It takes a lot of courage for someone to speak up about their mental health concerns. If your child comes to you directly, Psychology Today says responding with empathy and a willingness to listen is the best way to honor their bravery and help them get the treatment they need.  

Responses can look like: 

  • “That sounds really difficult.” 
  • “Can you tell me a bit more about what’s going on?” 
  • “When did this start?” 
  • "How does the stuff we've just spoken about make you feel?" 
  • “I’m glad you felt able to talk to me about this.” 
  • “Do you have any ideas about what you’d like us to do next? (It’s ok if you don’t.)” 
  • “I am here for you. Let’s make a plan for next steps.”  

For students who haven’t spoken up, conversation is just as important. Look for warning signs, talk openly, and be supportive.  

At Safe and Sober, we are creating content to address the underlying mental health struggles that can lead to adolescent substance abuse and underage drinking. To stay updated, follow us on FacebookInstagramLinkedIn, and Twitter.  

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