More than a third of high school students reported having had poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a nationally representative survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) whose results were released this spring. The same survey indicated that, last year, 44% of high school students felt constantly sad or hopeless over the past year.
Teenage mental health was an issue before the pandemic and has been exacerbated by the realities of the past two-plus years, according to Sandra DeJong, MD, MSc, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Things like vaccinations and antiviral medications can help manage the physical symptoms of COVID,” said Dr. DeJong, who is also secretary of the board of the American Psychiatric Association. “Mental health and socio-emotional impacts have been much harder to weed out.”
Dr. DeJong spoke about the rise of teen mental health issues amid the pandemic as well as what doctors can do to help teen patients and their families on a recent episode of “AMA Moving Medicine.” .
Dr. DeJong began her outpatient practice in 2001, and by that time she said there was already an increase in the rate of anxiety, depression, suicide and substance use disorders.
Dr. DeJong was therefore not surprised that the percentage of children with poor mental health has continued to rise during the pandemic, especially given the impact of the psychosocial effects of COVID-19, including the dealing with illness and death, family stress due to unemployment and financial pressures and rising rates of domestic violence. Combine that with the long period of school closures during the pandemic, further isolating students, and it’s no wonder their mental health has deteriorated, she said.
“They’ve been cut off from their peers, which is key for young people to develop that sense of identity, which it’s really about at this point,” Dr. DeJong said. “Loss of academic skills was a factor, disengagement from school and really a lot of loss of structure and routine.”
Dr DeJong believes conditions for teens and teens have improved since schools reopened and students have been able to return to a new sense of normalcy, but sadly the long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health children is still unknown.
“We really don’t know what the effect of this will be over time,” she said. “We think vulnerable young people will be at greater risk, but really, I think we need to think of it as an entire generation at potentially increased risk.”
From July, a new three-digit phone number, 988, was launched to help dispatch mobile crisis teams immediately to anyone going through a mental health crisis if needed. The goal of 988 is also to have 24/7 crisis call centers to direct mental health crises away from political involvement and the involvement of behavioral health specialists.
Learn how doctors demanded action in the face of the teen and young adult suicide crisis.
In the long term, Dr. DeJong believes that the system for improving children’s mental health needs to be evaluated and improved. But in the short term, there are simple suggestions doctors can make to help their adolescent patients.
“I really encourage people to connect with others,” she said. “It’s such an important part of our mental health to feel connected and part of a bigger whole. I often refer people to community efforts or encourage them to organize family events or get together with their friends . This kind of things [are] a way to pull yourself together after this really tough time.”
“AMA Moving Medicine” highlights innovation and emerging issues impacting physicians and public health today. You can watch each episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or the audio-only podcast version, which also features educational presentations and in-depth discussions.