Teen Mental Health & Coping: What’s Needed during COVID
Updated: May 22
February 22,2021 / Shweta Chooramani, MPH
Almost eleven months ago, Covid-19 entered our lives and made it upside down. A vast number of recent research studies have shown children and adolescents are more likely to experience depression and anxiety due to social isolation. A recent CDC study shows that a proportionately higher number of children and adolescents are seeking emergency care due to mental health problems.
Importance of Socialization during Teenage Years:
According to science, an adolescent brain is tuned to be independent, meet new people without adult supervision, find out who they really are, make social connections, fall in love, date, earn their own pocket money and do exciting things. The physical distancing enforced by the pandemic limits teenagers of all those adventurous things they should be doing in-person, as well as, their school routine. The socially isolating conditions can lead to loss of voice and the negative feelings associated with self-identify due to limited exposure to the outside world. Both of which are essential for the holistic development of an adolescent’s brain in normal conditions.
Effects of Social Isolation:
The survey conducted by America’s Promise Alliance to gauge the mental health well-being of 3,300 adolescents found that as many as 50 percent expressed more concern than usual due to the uncertainty about the future. Other top concerns were family’s health, family’s financial health, own physical health, own emotional health and school grades.
The psychological effects of social isolation has made us vulnerable with unattended frustration and anger stemming from limited mobility. Bouts of aggression due to lack of in-person communication with peer groups and consistent irritability due to lack of recreational options have become common symptoms. Social isolation compels teens to find solace in social media which in turn further aggravates symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.
Signs of Mental Stress due to Isolation
It is during these emotionally unnerving times, parents and caregivers of teenagers should watch out for signs of stress such as:
Irritability, confusion, poor concentration and lack of decision making.
Frequent emotional breakdowns due to feelings of uncertainty or fear.
Change in behavior with unexplained long episodes of silence or mood swings.
Change in eating habits, like compulsive snacking or skipping meals leading to weight loss or weight gain.
Change in sleeping habits like sleeping throughout the day, nightmares, or sleeping less than 8 hours a night.
Avoiding friends virtually or in-person.
Increased use of tobacco, alcohol or other substances (vaping).
Change in interest level in activities that were once enjoyed.
Physical symptoms such as headaches, body pains, stomach problem and skin rashes.
What Can Teens Do: Manage Stress in a Healthy Way
1. Digital Detox by Setting Boundaries: For a healthy mind, it’s important to have boundaries when it comes to being online 24-7. Researchers at UCLA found that, taking a break from stimulating news and videos help the brain to detoxify itself from the spiral of negative news. Especially with the recent political turmoil coupled with covid-19 news. Too much exposure to screens and clicking on notifications can make users captive to their mobile devices without realizing how its ill effects impacts the brain. It’s recommended to have a healthy relationship with tv, mobile or computer screens by having a fixed time to check up on messages and news. Not checking screens at least 2 hours before sleeping can help in getting a good night’s sleep.
2. Eat Well on Time and Exercise: Eating healthy food at routine times can help boost moods. An adequate supply of food, as brain fuel, is required for secretion of happy hormones. Several studies have linked depression with a diet high in refined sugar. Eating green leafy vegetables like spinach and fruits like bananas help increase the feel-good hormone called serotonin, as well as, foods like yogurt, beans, fish, beet-root, almonds, and seeds.
Go out, get some fresh air and move your body. Lancet research shows that teens who move 60 minutes each day at age 12 was linked to an average of 10% reduction in depression at age 18. Running, biking, dancing, and walking are all activities that can convert a sedentary lifestyle into outdoor time.
3. Engaging in Real Time Leisure Activities: Staying organized during social isolation can be tricky and the first step towards doing that is to follow a routine. A routine where dedicated ‘unwinding time’ is given to each activity every day. For instance,
Learning a new skill like drawing, crafts, playing an instrument, or cooking by online classes,
Playing board games with friends/family,
Virtually joint listening to podcasts and having discussions in groups,
Introducing self-care regime like keeping yourself hydrated, try yoga or practice mindfulness, listen to music,
Organizing virtual sing-along dates, movie nights or sleepovers with friends,
Having virtual or in-person meet-ups in the backyard,
Helping parents/siblings with household chores regularly,
Taking ownership of selected household errands daily,
Organizing and tidying up your room
4. Moving from Virtual to Real Communication over Phone: Talking to people about the feelings of frustration is often a first step towards resilience. To improve the emotional health and well-being of teenagers, it’s very important for them to have open communication channels with an adult who is not necessarily their parent or primary care giver. We often underestimate the importance of calling a friend or family member or trusted person as a safe place to discuss feelings. Transitioning from short Whatsapp messages, Facebook forwards and Instagram likes to real ‘how are you feeling right now’ conversation is vital for an uncluttered mind. It helps in improving the interpersonal connection between two individuals, improves understanding of non-verbal cues, without the expectation of being fake popular or liked by so many on social media.
5. Effective Listening for Resilience: As a parent or primary care giver the first step towards helping teenagers is listening to them without being judgmental. By listening to their concerns and by asking them how are they feeling without being preachy. Having nurturing talks with teens can help them get back on track through developing mental resilience. Dr. Damon Korb’s book called Raising An Organized Child – 5 Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration and Promote Confidence is a great resource for parents and caregivers.
Shweta is a mental health advocate and has managed, consulted, and written on a variety of themes. She is an independent consultant who specializes in grant writing, monitoring, and project evaluation for non-profits. Shweta joined the Teens4Teens Help Professional Advisory Board in January, 2021.