Teen mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic

Not as good as we want, not as bad as we’ve heard

By Kelly Dean Schwartz / University of Calgary

Headlines declare that isolation has caused youth mental health issues and that children’s mental health is being badly harmed by the pandemic. But are youth being impacted as negatively as the headlines would have us believe? Do we really have the data—past or present—to be making such declarations?

Measuring Covid-19’s impact

Most young people are responding to the pandemic in ways that are psychologically and developmentally normal.

Individual and meta-analysis studies are starting to appear in droves, and though helpful and informative, many are pre-prints (not peer-reviewed). Almost nonexistent are peer-reviewed studies that published reliable estimates of pre-Covid-19 youth mental health and used clinically valid measures to do so.

However, some notable exceptions include a study with Québec and Ontario adolescents and another with young adults in Québec, both of which found only modest increases in mental disorders like anxiety and depression during Covid-19 compared to pre-Covid estimates.

Important developmental and contextual factors are also often ignored when reporting the overall presentation of youth mental health. In our “Covid-19 Student Well-being and Resiliency Study” of over 1,500 Alberta students, the 15-18 age group reported more stress than the 12-14 age group. Females reported higher negative affect than males, and those whose families had experienced income loss and those with previous psychological diagnoses had unique stress and mental health profiles.

However, for all youth in our study—whether in the risk ranges or in the typical ranges of functioning—self-reported resilience support from parents, personal resources and communities remained high and stable.

Normal response vs. mental health crisis

What does this all mean? Although some youth are clearly reporting heightened negative effects of the pandemic on their social, personal and educational lives, in all areas we measured, over seven in 10 youth in our sample are responding to Covid-19 in ways that are developmentally and psychologically normal. This aligns with the Canadian pre-Covid longitudinal studies above. In other words, contrary to the alarming headlines, the majority of youth are doing as well as they can!

But what about the other 30 percent? Do their self-reported symptoms mean we have a shadow pandemic of youth mental health? Part of the answer might come in the language we use to understand mental disorders (part of mental health literacy). Put directly, feeling sad or lonely is not depression; worry or nervous feelings is not anxiety. Literature that leads us to believe otherwise is unethical at best and clinically damaging at worst.

Accept honesty of their sadness, nurture their strengths

Pathologizing normal, healthy responses to adverse experiences promotes misunderstanding about mental illness, and communicating to children that their Covid-19-related thoughts and feelings are akin to mental disorders might reignite a stigma that we have worked so hard to dismantle.

When youth hear constant messages that their sadness, frustration or worry are being interpreted as a mental disorder, this compromises the unique opportunity for youth to learn how to adapt and even thrive in the middle of a pandemic.

For those youth who need it, let’s get evidence-based help to them as quickly as we can and as close to their communities as possible, such as school-based services. But for the majority of youth, qualifying their lived experiences as clinically disordered only adds to their already heavy load of coping with Covid-19.

Our challenge moving forward will be to accept the honesty of their sadness and worry and to nurture their strengths of perseverance and resolve. In doing so, we can start to envision and build the changes in youth mental health promotion, prevention and intervention that are so desperately needed. And that is a headline we all can agree on.The Conversation

Image courtesy of Pixabay and Canva
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