The pandemic could lead to an increase in anxiety and depression in teens, according to some mental health professionals. Here's what you need to know—and what you can do as a parent to help.

By Maressa Brown
November 24, 2020
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Living through a global pandemic is taking both a physical and mental toll on just about everyone, and now, as COVID-19 cases hit a new high, mental health experts are speaking out about teens specifically. A group of psychologists in San Francisco are warning that teen suicide, anxiety, and depression are rising.

Christine Garcia, a San Francisco psychologist who is the director of Edgewood Center for Children and Families, told the Bay Area ABC affiliate, that on Halloween night, eight teenagers ended up in a San Francisco emergency room after attempted suicides. "Kids have hit a wall," noted Garcia. "Typical is usually one or two at most, and eight is an insane number."

The kids are overwhelmingly being affected by the virus, according to the clinical psychologist. She shared that one child's parents died of COVID, then went to live with his grandfather who also contracted the novel coronavirus and passed away.

Other teens are suffering from loneliness and isolation, and due to additional time at home, there are more reports of child abuse, noted Garcia. While some reports have noted that there have been fewer reports in certain parts of the country—like New York City—lately, that could actually be a cause for concern, notes the New York Times. Police, prosecutors, and child protection officials tell the Times that teachers tend to be the leading reporters of suspected abuse, and they're seeing far less of students these days.

Kids are also missing out on opportunities to connect with school counselors about a variety of challenges they're facing.

Another San Francisco area expert Dr. Jason Nagata, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent and young adult health, told ABC that the number of patients who've been hospitalized for eating disorders has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, and teens are susceptible to fears about gaining the "quarantine 15."

Separate recent findings echo Garcia and Dr. Nagata's concerns. In a survey of 1,000 16- to 19-year-olds, conducted last month for WETA Well Beings and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs by DKC Analytics:

  • 67 percent reported experiencing depression in the past year. 22 percent say they’ve experienced serious depression.
  • 44 percent reported being dissatisfied with their current mental health.
  • 50 percent say the pandemic has made their mental health worse.
  • "Lonely" and "worried or anxious" are the most common feelings frequently experienced during the pandemic, each selected by over 60 percent of respondents.

This veritable storm of suffering might appear overwhelming, but it's crucial to call out and address, says Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist in Wilton, Connecticut.

"The mental health issues coming out of the pandemic will last long after COVID is over, especially for our youth who will experience it most significantly," she notes.

So, what are parents to do? "Connect with kids and also give them space," suggests Feliciano. She offers the following specific tips to get conversations going even before a teen is experiencing struggles with their mental health:

  • Ask open-ended questions. For example: "Is there anything I can help you with today?"; "Is there anything you need from me?"; "Are there ways that you would want to connect with your friends that I can help with?"; "What was your day like today?"; "Do you need space today?"; "Anything you want to do today that you would enjoy?"
  • Try and think of activities they enjoy. Then, work to connect on their level through those interests, be that Gravity Falls, graphic design, or political activism.
  • Pick your battles. "They may need a little more screen time to connect with friends these days," notes Feliciano. "However, we want to help them establish healthy sleep routines and self-esteem, which is essential for mood and overall wellness, both affected by screens. Set boundaries, but do it with empathy and kindness helping them to understand the reasons behind the rules."
  • Think of what you can say "yes" to. Kids are hearing "no" a lot right now, and they need to hear "yes"es too—even if it's a "yes" to making plans for a trip or social event down the road.

The bottom line is that kids are in a uniquely tough position right now, given that they're still figuring out what their coping skills are, says Feliciano. "They are developing their relationships, self-esteem, interpersonal insight all at a time where connection has been dramatically limited," she points out. The good news is that a bit of extra support from their loved ones can help them weather the storm.

If your teen is currently struggling with notable mental health challenges, consider checking out BetterHelp's site Teen Counseling, which is focused on helping parents and teenagers find the right counselor who can work with your child remotely. You might also want to explore various free mental health services for families.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org or text "START" to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

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