Shareh Ghani, M.D.
Vice President and Medical Director, Magellan Healthcare
According to a recent survey, 60 percent of young adults are struggling with anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Calls to teen suicide hotlines are rising. But unless parents know the warning signs, they may not know their child needs help.
Signs of strain among teens were evident before the pandemic, especially among girls. A JAMA study revealed the percentage of teen girls who considered attempting suicide rose from 18.7 percent to 22.1 percent over the past 10 years. Even more startling is that the ways in which teen girls commit suicide have become more violent and more likely to result in death on first attempt.
Now, as another COVID-19 surge threatens to upend holidays and keep teens from friends and family, mental health professionals are concerned that long periods of isolation combined with the start of winter could be more than some teens can bear. Parents should be aware of how their teenagers are faring and whether outside support may be needed.
Know the signs
We’re only nine months into the pandemic, and experts say even if a vaccine becomes available, it may be another 18 to 24 months before it is ready for use. Adults are steeling themselves for the possibility that schools will return to an all-virtual format if infection rates continue to rise. Many are also experiencing “crisis fatigue,” leaving them emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. Teens experience the stresses of the pandemic even more acutely than adults.
Depression manifests differently in teens. Some teens complain of physical ailments, like headaches or stomach pains. Some express depression in the form of irritability or anger. Substance abuse and violence are also signs.
A persistent negative mental state can trigger feelings of anxiety and fear. Teens may exhibit extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, or an inability to pay attention. They also might have difficulty sleeping. Schoolwork suffers, as do relationships.
When teens stay in an anxious state, changes can occur in the brain that make it hard for them to move past negative feelings. The risk of self-harm and suicide can increase.
Here are three tips for helping your teen:
- Don’t brush it off as hormones: It’s important that parents understand the difference between being sad and being depressed. During the pandemic, it is normal for teens to feel down about changes that turn their routine upside down and prevent them from doing the things they love, like playing sports or spending time with friends. Last spring, some of the disappointments teens dealt with, like loss of graduation ceremonies and prom, felt deeply unfair. When your teen is unable to shake moods of extreme irritability or persistent sadness, talk with them. Acknowledge their feelings. If your child isn’t receptive to having a conversation, don’t push, but assure them you are available to talk anytime.
- Encourage your child to practice self-care, and provide opportunities for joy: Think about the activities your child enjoyed before COVID-19 and look for ways to reintroduce them in safe ways. Think outside the box–let your child pick a gadget from Amazon, head to their favorite to-go restaurant or take a bike ride together.
- Provide a nonjudgmental environment for teens to talk: If your teenager is uncomfortable discussing with you how they are feeling, look for alternatives. Ask your pediatrician if your child could be evaluated for depression or anxiety during their next visit. Such an assessment could lead to a conversation that ensures your teen gets help navigating complex emotions. With the rise in telehealth, this help can take place from the comfort of the child’s room. During a telehealth visit, give your teen space. Go to another area of the home, and resist the urge to ask questions afterward, but be open to talking if your teen wants to.
The loss of social connectedness is one of the more painful experiences teens may face during the pandemic, but it shouldn’t feel insurmountable. When parents educate themselves on the signs of emotional distress in their children and have the resources to get help, they equip themselves to provide the right support for their children at the right time.