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Mental Health Trends in Teenagers: A Recap of 2020-2021

mental health statistics 2020

The ongoing stress, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on us globally. Since March 2020, we have been forced to cope with periods of isolation and disconnection, alongside grief of what we’ve lost, and worry about what lies ahead. It is easy, as adults, to think only about our own personal mental health. However, it’s important we recognize the effect that this pandemic has had on younger populations, too. While teenagers and young adults are often thought of happy, carefree generations, their mental health has become an increasing concern. In this article, we review recent and historical mental health trends among teenagers and young adults—and provide advice for parents on helping their children cope.

Mental Health Trends in Teenagers Due to COVID-19

Since the spread of COVID-19 began, teenagers and young adults have had to face many challenges unique to their age groups. School closings, social isolation, and financial hardships are just some examples. Those in school had to transition to fully virtual learning. Those working had to cope with layoffs and temporary business closures. Everyone, regardless of age, was forced to lockdown with family members and away from friends, in efforts to prevent the spread of disease. For teenagers who rely heavily on social connections, this was especially difficult to do. 

Research shows that adolescents depend on friendships to manage potential mental health issues like depression and anxiety. They also depend on these social connections to maintain a sense of self-worth. During the initial stay-at-home orders for COVID-19, one-third of teenagers reported feeling unhappy or depressed. At least one quarter did not feel connected to their school community. As one teen told the New York Times, “A lot of adults assume teens have it easy… But it’s hitting us the hardest.”

It is these factors – combined with widespread struggles like grief, worry, and fear – that have caused the rising mental health trends among teens.

According to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, in May 2020, 29 percent of parents reported that their child was already experiencing issues with mental or emotional health—just months after the pandemic began. As of October 2020, 31 percent of parents reported that their child’s mental health was worse than before the pandemic. They commonly reported issues of irritability, clinginess, fear, and difficulty sleeping among their teens.

According to another report by Fair Health, released in March 2021, the number of mental health insurance claims among teenagers has increased at least 19% when comparing 2020 to 2019. Some months were worse than others. For example, the study found that directly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, mental health claims for teenagers (aged 13 to 18) skyrocketed 97% in March 2020 and 104% in April 2020. This was largely driven by:

  • Self-harm claims: These nearly doubled from April 2019 to April 2020.
  • Drug overdose claims: These increased 119% between April 2019 and April 2020.
  • Substance use disorder claims: These increased 63% between April 2019 and April 2020.
  • Anxiety disorder claims: These increased 94% between April 2019 and 2020.
  • Major depressive disorder claims: These increased 84% between April 2019 and 2020.

Similar increases were felt among young adults, aged 19 to 22. As of 2020, the study reported that mental health related conditions were the sixth most common reason for emergency department visits among teenagers in the United States.

Teenagers have also reported new mental health issues since the pandemic began. According to the same report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 1 in 4 high school students reported worsened emotional and mental health since March 2020. A more recent survey found that only one-third of high school students report they are able to cope with their sources of stress amid the pandemic. This means 2 out of 3 high school students may not have the skills to effectively cope with stressors regarding their mental health.

While the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated mental health trends in the United States, it’s important to recognize that mental health conditions among teenagers and young adults are not a new concern. In fact, most mental health disorders start showing between childhood and young adulthood.

Historical Mental Health Trends Among Teenagers and Young Adults

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 50 percent of mental health disorders begin by age 14, and 75 percent of conditions develop by age 24. In 2019, it was estimated that approximately 1 in every 6 youth in the United States is battling a mental health disorder – however, as we can speculate from the numbers above, this prevalence has likely increased since the onset of COVID-19.

Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that:

  • Depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of mental illness and disability in adolescents.
  • Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among teenagers (ages 15 to 19) globally. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34.
  • Most mental health conditions in teenagers go unnoticed and untreated, which is detrimental for adolescents’ long-term health.

What Can Parents Do to Help?

Knowing these growing mental health trends among teens and young adults, it is important for parents and other adults to get more involved in helping those young ones who are struggling. When mental health disorders go unrecognized and undiagnosed, it can lead to a range of negative outcomes. For example, unaddressed mental illness in youth can continue and worsen in their adult years. Additionally, untreated mental health conditions can lead to substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and risky behaviors. 

As a parent, it is important for you to be aware of potential signs of mental health disorders in teenagers and young adults. By knowing what symptoms can indicate a mental health struggle, you can better help your teen get the treatment he or she needs. Additionally, it is important to have honest, open, and ongoing conversations about mental health with your teen. Mental health has long been a difficult and delicate topic to discuss, but the more you bring it up at home and have check-ins with your teen, the more “normal” these conversations will become. You want your teen to come to you when he or she is feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, or simply out of tune. These conversations can help build the foundation for that openness, and establish trust between parents and teenagers.

Now, more than ever, it is important to check-in with your teenager regarding their health. Ask your teen how they are feeling, what challenges they have encountered, and if they want to talk. Stay involved in your teen’s life. Research shows that young people have been significantly overwhelmed by social isolation, illness-related fears, grief, and economic instability since the COVID-19 pandemic began, all of which have led to increased mental health issues among this age group. Indirectly, parents affected by issues like income insecurity, substance use, and poor mental health can also negatively affect children in the home.

Parents should also be sure to allow safe connections between teens and their friends. Teenagers inherently need social connections in order to be happy and fulfilled. By spending time with their friends, they can focus on having fun and worry less about all else happening in the world. This can lead to better mental health over time.

By getting involved now, and finding positive tactics to cope with the pandemic at home, we can create better mental health outcomes for our children and teenagers. The current mental health trends are likely to persist beyond the pandemic, but steps that we take now can help create more outlets and resources for teens to get the help they need.

Finally, it is important to intervene if they recognize signs of mental health issues emerging. It is estimated that 7.7 million children in the U.S. – who struggle with a treatable mental health disorder – do not receive the necessary treatment from a professional. If your loved one is struggling, it is ever-important to seek a mental health treatment program that is tailored to teens and young adults.

Turnbridge is the preeminent mental health and substance use disorder treatment center for young adults and adolescents. If you suspect your teen or loved one is struggling with mental health issues, a substance use disorder, or co-occurring conditions, do not hesitate to contact us for guidance. You may call 877-581-1793 to speak with a specialist, or visit us online to learn about our programs.