Pandemic Lockdown Likely to Increase Mental Health Issues Among Youth

Before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1 in 5 American children (ages 3 through 17) have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in every given year. They also state that 50% of all mental illness begins by age 14 and 75% begins by age 24. Recent research from CDC indicates that serious depression is worsening in teens. The suicide rate among girls recently reached a 40-year high. Self-harm (a term for self-inflicted injuries, such as cutting oneself) has also surged. Nearly 20% more females, age 10 to 14, have sought emergency room treatment for poisoning, cutting or harming themselves every year since 2009.

These numbers were high during normal times. Now our lives have been upended. Teens feel isolated and have lost important events and rites of passage. They no longer have the structure of school or extracurricular activities. Families are worried about illness and job losses. All of these stressors will only increase mental health problems.

Warning Signs

Since mental illness is very common, and we are all under a lot of stress at the moment, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs of possible mental health problems. The difficulty is that adolescence is a particularly turbulent time of life, and teenagers are well-known for their moodiness. So, how is a parent supposed to know what is normal teen angst and what is a possible mental illness? Below are some guiding rules for different disorders, but ultimately, if you are unsure, call your pediatrician.

  • Depression
    • sadness most of the time or excessive crying
    • lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
    • withdrawal from friends and family
    • irritability and/or anger
    • significant change in sleep patterns (inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get up in the morning)
    • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
    • complaints of pains, including headaches, stomachaches, low back pain, or fatigue (with no known medical cause)
    • pessimism and indifference (not caring about anything in the present or future)
    • thoughts of death or suicide
  • Eating Disorders
    • weight loss or drastic weight fluctuations
    • avoidance of or over-indulgence in different types of foods
    • excessive drinking of fluids
    • skipping meals, making excuses for not eating or eating in secrete
    • expressing disgust, shame or guilt about eating habits
    • excessive focus on dieting
    • Persistent worry or complaining about being fat and talk of losing weight
    • excessive, rigid exercise regimen
    • regularly going to the bathroom after eating
  • Cutting or Self-Harm
    • unexplained injuries, such as cuts, scratches, burns, bruises, etc.
    • making excuses or acting embarrassed for injuries or scars if they are discovered
    • wearing concealing clothing (e.g. long sleeves even in hot weather)
    • wounds that don’t heal or get worse or are always in the same location
    • collection of sharp tools
  • Anxiety
    • extremely fearful – has unexplained fears or more fears than most kids their age
    • tendency to be excessively wary and vigilant
    • complains about muscle tension and cramps, chest pain, stomachaches, headaches, pain in the limbs and back, and/or fatigue
    • generally thinks the worst will happen


Finding Help

If you do see signs of a mental health issue in your teen, take immediate action. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. A teen with a mental health illness can’t just “shake it off” or “stop feeling sorry for themselves.” They need professional help to get better. The good news is that many mental health professionals are offering telehealth video calls right now, so you can get someone to help your teen right from the safety of your home.

The best way to find a mental health provider is to obtain recommendations. Your teen’s pediatrician, your family doctor, or some other local practitioner is the best source for a recommendation. Most psychologists, or other mental health professionals, are happy to video conference with parents first to discuss a child’s situation. This is a great way for you to determine if you think this particular doctor is a good fit for your teen. Don’t be afraid to connect with a couple of therapists before choosing one.

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