- The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on teens, both emotionally and developmentally.
- As the pandemic slows down, teens face the daunting task of getting themselves back on track.
- Parents and caregivers should be prepared to support teens during this phase, especially when it comes to mental health.
There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on teenagers, many of whom missed out on sports, activities, club meetings, prom, in-person learning, and opportunities for building social connections, all while facing public health concerns, the threat of a recession, and other societal issues.
A new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that social and educational disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic were linked to higher prevalence of poor mental health and suicide attempts. Among high school students 18 years or younger, nearly three quarters (73.1%) reported at least one adverse childhood experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the virus is still circulating, restrictions have been lifted and many teenagers have returned to the classroom, enrolled in college, or started jobs. How are they making up for lost time and what does the future of adolescent mental health look like?
Learning to Cope
“Teens are recovering mentally from the pandemic in various ways,” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, MSW, LCSW. “Some have been able to demonstrate more resilience and ‘mental toughness’ in their ability to problem-solve and think more creatively about their current situation. Other teens are having a bit of a harder time mentally, continuing to struggle to regain motivation and adjusting back to an ‘in-person’ world, where time management, appearance, and socialization are at the forefront of their daily life.”
Teens have endured so much since the start of the pandemic, including divorce, death, food insecurity, among other traumatic experiences. Many have lost time with friends and are now struggling to meet new people or establish relationships with others.
So many teenagers have experienced loss, including the loss of memories or experiences. Even the most resilient teenagers have had a difficult time.
Keri Cooper, LSCW
Grief is a process and these teens are in fact grieving.
“Grief is a process and these teens are in fact grieving,” says Keri Cooper, LCSW, a holistic therapist and the author of “Mental Health Uncensored: 10 Foundations Every Parent Needs to Know.”
There’s no question that the pandemic’s impact on teenagers is significant. As Ashley Hudson, a licensed marriage and family therapist points out, the learning and development of social skills were halted or delayed during the pandemic, leading many teenagers to experience social anxiety or find it difficult to make new friends or build strong, meaningful relationships.
“The pandemic has affected us all, but teens have experienced a version of difficulty that is nearly impossible for adults to fully comprehend,” Michael Klinkner, a licensed clinical social worker, explains.
Fortunately, ”[many] teens have turned to their friends, teammates, and peers in school-related activities as a source of solace. Because they have shared similar difficult experiences, they have been able to use each other as positive support. Teens are able to relate to other teens about the past years in a way that no one else really can.”
Destigmatizing Mental Illness
The pandemic brought on an onslaught of mental health concerns and conditions, especially in the younger generations, but it has also increased awareness for mental illness and help-seeking behaviors in ways that didn’t exist prior.
Because everyone has felt the mental health effects of the pandemic—adults and children alike—there are more conversations around mental health, more resources being allocated to young adult mental healthcare, and more teenagers opening up about their experiences with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.
Since 2020, there’s been an uptick in policies, programs, and mental health services, as more and more people advocate for the mental health and well–being of our youth.
Nevada, Utah, and Virginia are among some of the first states to enact “student mental health days,” which allow students to take absences for mental and behavioral health.
Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act of 2021 is another bill that’s been introduced to the House and would help in developing or establishing peer-to-peer support programs, educational seminars, social media applications for mental and behavioral health purposes, training programs, and telehealth services, among other uses.
While the pandemic has brought many negative experiences, it has encouraged more and more people to talk openly about their mental health and prompted more proactive, preventative, and holistic approaches to young adult mental healthcare.
There are also more online resources, programs, and communities than ever before, affording this generation greater access to mental health apps, peer-to-peer support groups, and other digital mental health platforms.
“In times when face-to-face connection became difficult, teens began using these platforms as one of their only ways to connect,” Klinkner says. “They have continued to use technology to connect with both local and international friends.”
Offering Mental Health Support to Teens
“The recovery and future for teens will depend a lot on how the adults provide the necessary care for them in the next few years,” Klinkner says. “The pandemic has affected us all, but teens have experienced a version of difficulty that is nearly impossible for adults to fully comprehend.”
As a parent, you should regularly talk to your teenager about how they’ve been affected and acknowledge how challenging this time has been, Klinkner explains. You can also support their efforts to maintain relationships and allow them the space to process uncertainty, fear, and sadness.
He also suggests making regular offers to connect them to a therapist, and if or when they say ‘yes,’ working with them to find a suitable match.
Teens may not know how to ask for help or feel comfortable doing so, especially if they’re facing stigma at home. As a society, we can make it easier to access free or low-cost mental healthcare by providing screenings, resources, and mental health services in systems where teens live, work, and play, such as schools and community organizations.
As an educator, community member, or advocate, you can support teens by advocating for more policies, funding, and resources to be allocated to adolescent mental healthcare.
What This Means For You
The pandemic has shed light on the importance of adolescent mental health—and the need for more mental and behavioral health services. The reality is that teenagers are beginning to make up for lost time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t mourning that time lost.
We need to encourage teens to speak up, share their feelings, ask for support, and, most importantly, have the services available when they need them.
Countless organizations and mental health companies like the Jed Foundation, Trevor Project, Active Minds, and Teen Talk, are focused on youth mental health and well-being and working closely with community members to build more comprehensive, supportive environments that help teens not just survive, but thrive.
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