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Published on January 11, 2022

How the pandemic is hurting young people

COVID-19 & Kids

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind to anyone’s mental health, but the toll has been especially great on young people. Adolescent mental health was already a rising problem prior to the outbreak, according to a recently released 53-page advisory issued by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health.” He reports that in 2019, one in three high school students and half of all female students reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It was a 40 percent increase over the figures in 2009.

That was before the pandemic hit and dramatically altered young people’s lives. Suddenly, friendships were on hold and school was being conducted on Zoom. Sports and other important extracurricular activities were canceled. Fear was never-ending and many children lost loved ones. The consequences have been dire.

In early 2021, emergency department visits for suicide attempts by adolescent girls in the U.S. was up 51 percent compared to 2019. Depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of all youth exhibiting symptoms of depression and 20 percent exhibiting symptoms of anxiety.

The mental health crisis in youth has several factors, according to psychiatrist Bart Main, MD at the Centers for Behavioral Health of Cape Cod Healthcare, who specializes in the treatment of adolescents.

“The developmental stages and skills, especially social skills and academic skills that kids are supposed to be developing, are being put on hold, so they are frozen in time so to speak, which is very, very frustrating for them,” he said.

He sees three related issues that are causing psychological problems:

Social isolation - Human beings are primates and, as such, we are social creatures. Dr. Main points out that the cruelest punishment in prison is to put inmates in isolation.

“We need social contact and to deprive us of it is really, really painful, especially for the 6- to 22-year-old age group when the peer group is the most important concern,” he said. “Social isolation is pathologically toxic.”

For young people in that age group, their peers act as a mirror for their own development, he said. Kids need those interactions and relationships to develop a healthy sense of self.

Too much screen time - The second issue that concerns Dr. Main is what we’ve used as a substitute for social interactions: screens. Even before COVID, too much screen time by kids was a serious problem. The lockdown has dramatically increased the dangers.

“Unfortunately, the alternative to social isolation for many, many families to entertain their children was to turn to electronics,” Dr. Main said. “When that becomes the primary mode of socialization, entertainment and activity, that’s literally destructive to brain development. We’re not letting them do the intellectual activities, the social development that they should be doing. Instead, we are confining them to this really bizarre social media world where representation of ourselves and others is very distorted.”

Ambiguous grief - The final contributing factor is the feeling that the pandemic is never ending, which causes what Dr. Main calls 'ambiguous grief.' While regular grief is usually related to one specific event, ambiguous grief is an ongoing process where there is no end in sight. That is extremely anxiety-provoking and depressing for people.

“People can’t sort of gear up and use their defense mechanisms and say we’re going to get through this because it’s not at all clear that we are going to get through this,” he said. “The political divisiveness in our culture is making people question authority and it makes them more anxious and more ambivalent and just more scared – even grown-ups are suffering from this.”

How to Help

Parents should be alert for any signs that their children are struggling. If parents are worried, they should contact their child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians can screen for depression and anxiety and make a referral to a mental health counselor, if needed.

Following are some signs your child might need professional help (from the American Academy of Pediatrics):

  • Changes in mood that are not usual for your child, such as feelings of hopelessness or rage.
  • Changes in behavior.
  • A loss of interest in things that were previously enjoyed.
  • Changes in sleep – either too much or too little.
  • Changes in appetite – either a larger or smaller appetite.
  • Changes in appearance, such as a lack of personal hygiene.
  • Risky behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol.
  • Thoughts or talk about death or suicide.

Not all adolescents are in critical need of mental health counseling, but all could benefit from parents helping them build up their resilience, Dr. Main said. There are several ways to do that. The first is that parents should look for any opportunity for kids to be able to safely interact with each other. Since socializing outdoors is considered safe, sports are a wonderful activity to encourage.

“In particular, team sports where people can be playing outside are great. That minimizes the contagion but at the same time gives them the social skills and physical activity that is the antidote to the electronic poison,” he said. “I also really like to steer kids into creative pursuits that don’t involve electronics, whether that is visual arts, performing arts, sculpture, literature and writing. All those things are really, really helpful.”

Dr. Main recommended the America’s Promise Alliance led by the late General Colin Powell and his wife Alma Powell to help at-risk kids, mostly in the inner cities. It contains five precepts that would be helpful to all kids today, since all kids are currently at risk.

  1. All children need caring adults to serve as guides, caretakers and mentors.
  2. All children need physical and psychological safety at home, in school and in their community.
  3. All children deserve a healthy start and access to healthy nourishment to help develop their minds and bodies.
  4. All children need an effective education to learn the skills to help them compete and succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
  5. All children need opportunities to help others to develop character and competence to be civically-engaged citizens.

“If you can find ways for kids to be of service, where their contribution can be valued, that’s incredibly powerful,” Dr. Main said. “Church communities can be really helpful for that, or animal shelters. Any kind of volunteer work is great.”