teen mental health

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Teen Mental Health

Unprecedented. Surreal. Exhausting. Lost. These are all words that the Washington Post heard readers use when describing 2020 in one word or phrase. And, while I can identify with all of them, as the parent of a class of 2021 high school senior and a class of 2023 sophomore, they are not words I ever imagined—or would ever hope—to describe their high school years.

There has been much conversation about parents of small children working through the impact of the pandemic on their lifestyle. And, I applaud them. At the same time, parents of teens also struggled. We continue to struggle.

I’m not one to look for sympathy, and my husband and I have always taught our children to be resilient, look for the positive and to always bring 110% to whatever you’re doing. My hope is that we’ve modeled that through this experience. However, I want to shine a light on teen mental health, as soon (sooner than I’m ready for!) these kids will be our future.

In my house, my senior is the oldest, so she doesn’t know the “senior year experience” any other way. While she doesn’t have an older sibling to compare against, she also realizes this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Amidst a tumultuous basketball season full of last-minute cancellations, rescheduling and teammates not being on the court to abruptly being sent home to quarantine due to possible exposures, it’s not been an easy year. Despite that, she did get to have prom—inclusive of masks and taped off floors to stay in her “pod”. Even her experience going through the college selection process was not ideal. Many aspects of campus tours couldn’t happen, like visiting dorms or going to a collegiate athletic event. Meetings with academic advisors and student ambassadors happened through a computer screen. Walking through the various campuses felt empty, as if it was summer break. All this to say, it was hard to get the feel for what it might be like at the places she was considering to be her “home” for the next four years.

And let’s not forget my second daughter – a sophomore soccer player and cheerleader. Five times she was removed from her classes to quarantine, leaving an experiential and educational gap. While she prides herself on being more of an introvert, she learned quickly in the spring of 2020 that school and athletics serve as her social outlet. She’s felt more alone in the last year than she ever hoped to, even for an introvert. She has yet to be able to fully participate in Unified Track with classmates she adores and strives to support. Add to that, the Chicago Cubs having not such great seasons the last two years, even watching the team she loves didn’t bring the excitement and satisfaction she desired or experienced in years past. Our hearts ached for her and there was little we could do.

Increasing Mental Illness

Regardless of the pandemic, a large portion of teenagers meet the criteria for anxiety and depression. According to the Child Mind Institute, 14.3% of teens will be affected by depression and bipolar disorder. When you add in a pandemic, this group has been forced to remove from normal social, physical and educational interactions. According to a national poll from University of Michigan Health, nearly half of parents noticed a new or worsening mental health condition in their teen since the pandemic started.

Social Connection

Our young people rely on social connections for their emotional health and well-being. It has certainly driven up the hours spent on devices—gaming, FaceTime, Zoom and other apps have become the new way of engaging with their peers and friends. According to poll director and pediatrician Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H. “Peer groups and social interactions are a critical part of development during adolescence. But these opportunities have been limited during the pandemic,” Freed says. “Many teens may feel frustrated, anxious and disconnected due to social distancing and missing usual social outlets, like sports, extracurricular activities and hanging out with friends.”

High Expectations

With this age group, I’ve found there’s an expectation that they should be able to manage on their own. They should “know better” than to interrupt a Zoom meeting their working from home parent is having. They should be able to self-study, keep up and even succeed with their academics. And, if they are an athlete, that expectation is to be training on your own. Those are high expectations and mental challenges at any age!

Extra Support

In addition, teaching and mentoring our teens desire interaction has looked vastly different. I like to think I’m a smart person, but AP Calculus and Physics are just not subjects I can teach! So, we’ve had to get creative to find help. My girls have learned to collaborate virtually with classmates, and my husband and I appreciated the extra virtual office hours some educators have been willing to invest in.

Impact of Staying Home

Dr. Freed also has shared that “just as young people are at the age of being biologically primed to seek independence from their families, COVID-19 precautions have kept them at home”. As a mom, I have loved this extra time with both of our girls. We’ve had many laughs and tears. We’ve celebrated accomplishments that still took place and validated disappointments of those that did not. Also, as a mom, I worry about the impact of the extra time our oldest has had as she ponders leaving home in about 90 days. There already was the natural fear and anxiety of leaving home. And, with these last 15 months of life pushing her back home versus out into the world, that fear and anxiety has amplified.

Moving Forward

With my career in healthcare insurance and employer support, I’ve seen the callout for mental health support in the workplace. And not only am I a supporter, I’m a part of those statistics and needs. So is my family. Even as the “return to new normal” continues to unfold, this “unprecedented, surreal and exhausting” experience will impact our lives forever.

Through all of this I’ve been reminded that parenting is hard! And, that each of our children are different. Here are a few other things for you to consider or to encourage your employees with teens to do:

  • Lean into your teens. Encourage them to feel. To talk. Their feelings are real. And while as adults, we may realize that what they are going through may not even matter in just a few short years, it is real to them now. Let them feel all those feelings and the realness of them.
  • Ask for help. Just like I can’t teach Physics or Calculus, I’m also not a mental health expert. It’s important to lead by encouraging and example – don’t be afraid to ask for help. We certainly cannot do this all on our own. That barrier, while it can be a big one, can make an even bigger difference.
  • Be available. We are all busy. But, when the moment presents itself that your teen is ready to open up (watch carefully for this window to open), you have to be willing to make them the priority.
  • Encourage physical health. Make sure they are getting enough sleep, good quality food and staying active. Fueling their bodies physically is important to positive mental health.

Resilient. Strong. Adaptable. While more positive words that are often used to describe our teens, don’t lose sight of the fight they’ve had to be those things. For you parents of high schoolers, hang in there! We have amazing kiddos that need our support.

As you continue to address your people’s evolving needs, such as parental support, the First Person team is here to help. You can reach out to me directly or on LinkedIn with any questions, or even just to chat! You can also drop us a line here or tweet at us.

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