What Do We Actually Know About the Effects of COVID-19 on Mental Health?

Director of Research and Knowledge Dissemination at JED

Much has been written about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Experts, communities, and care providers are struggling to plan for the mental health impacts that will result from the pandemic, including possible increases in mental illness and suicide risk. Others have expressed concern about a “perfect storm”of job losses and social isolation, not to mention an upsurge in anxiety and stress about the threat of the virus itself.

It is hard for us to fully understand what the overall impact on emotional well-being will be. We know already, however, that the pandemic is taking a profound toll on Americans. In research conducted by the CDC, 40.9% of respondents reported increased mental health symptoms as a result of the pandemic. 25.5% of respondents aged 18-24 reported serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days.

Before the pandemic, rates of mental health issues among adolescents were already on the rise. Now we can see in addition that the pandemic is having a negative effect on adolescent mental health. In one poll, 83% of teens with a history of mental illness said the pandemic was making their condition worse. This was in part due to a lack of access to mental health and peer support resources, many of which were obtained through schools. We already know that teenagers who are socially isolated or lonely are more likely to become depressed. Loneliness is associated with an increase in both anxiety and depressive symptoms in youth. In addition, there is reason to be especially concerned about adolescents’ isolation from their same-aged peers. Adolescence is a time of forging one’s independence and learning to be more self-reliant. During this time, teens tend to turn to their peers for support more than anyone else. The limited opportunities for social connection imposed by the pandemic can make access to peer support more challenging.

So how do we support teens during this difficult time? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Help them create and stick to a schedule. Regular routines can be reassuring. For teens, household chores, projects, new learning, hobbies, and time with family can create both structure and a sense of purpose.
  2. Listen to their concerns and disappointments. Do not minimize what they are upset about, even if it seems minor to you or in comparison with everything else that’s currently going on. It is important to understand their experience and validate their emotions.
  3. Be mindful of the extent to which you are watching and listening to the news around them, particularly if they are anxious. This can create a tense atmosphere and may exacerbate anxieties.
  4. Maintain a semblance of normalcy. Engage in some activities that you enjoyed before the pandemic. If you went out to a pizza place every Thursday night, order pizza in (if you can) every Thursday night or plan to make a pizza at home.
  5. Encourage them to stay connected to friends digitally. While it’s not the same, conversations over FaceTime and other video chat platforms can help with feelings of isolation. At the same time, pay some attention to how much time your teen is spending on social media and with their devices. There is often a tipping point at which it becomes more isolating and can feed feelings of anxiety and depression. The best guidance here is just to observe them and if they are having trouble, help them spend less time on the device, perhaps by spending more time together taking a walk outside or doing another physical activity.

The current pandemic continues to bring with it much uncertainty and an ever-changing landscape. As we navigate this unsettling time, it is especially important to reach out and support our teens and each other – it can make a tremendous difference.

Sara Gorman, director of Research and Knowledge Dissemination at JED, holds a PhD from Harvard and an MPH from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. As a public health specialist and an author, she has written extensively about mental health, global health, and the intersection of public health and psychology, among other topics. Sara’s work has appeared or been reviewed in TIME, The New Yorker, Science, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, BBC, NPR, and Quartz.
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