How teens and adults can improve their mental health as the pandemic continues
Since the news of the pandemic first became common knowledge in January 2020, the United States has been subjected to significant disruptions to everyday life. Lockdowns, quarantine, social distancing, how we access school, work and healthcare… everything has changed.
With quarantine and social distancing now a common part of everyday life, isolation is taking its toll on everyone. Some of the most affected are children and teens, who are struggling with anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness at unprecedented rates.
Peter Loper, MD, a pediatrician and psychiatrist who works with adults, children and adolescents, explained the ongoing concerns over the effects of social isolation on teens and how to lead happier, healthier lives.
More adolescents are seeking mental health care as the pandemic continues
Since the pandemic began, people are spending less time in large or even small gatherings. Children and especially teens have seen their social lives become focused almost entirely on immediate or sometimes extended family.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared state of emergency for pediatric mental health.
“Adolescents especially are very susceptible to the negative effects of isolation,” Dr. Loper said. “Adolescence is a time when teens are really becoming a part of their larger community. That sense of community, and their ability to be a part of it, has been compromised by the pandemic. We’re seeing a significant increase in suicidal ideation – where patients are actively thinking about or considering suicide.”
For teens and their parents who are trying to navigate through the many changes of the pandemic, dealing with loneliness and isolation can feel overwhelming. But there are a few strategies you can use to help feel more connected to the community and the world around you, and they work for people of all ages.
How can you feel less stressed and alone during the COVID-19 pandemic?
First off, it’s essential to acknowledge the value and importance of interpersonal interaction. “Meaningful personal interaction is a fundamental psychological need,” Dr. Loper said. “Even for introverts or those who suffer from social anxiety, some interpersonal contact is essential for maintaining mental health.”
It’s important to be adaptable! While being physically present just isn’t as easy as it used to be, there are still ways to help find that connection and community:
- Pick your people. Do you live with roommates? Those are your people. Your immediate or extended family, partner or children, very close friends… those are your people. Focus on maximizing the time you spend with those you are closest to.
- Be intentional. Try to minimize distractions. Put down electronic devices and turn off the television, so that you are fully present and engaged.
- Acknowledge that feeling this way is not unusual. Anxiety and depression can become much more severe with prolonged isolation and loneliness, as well as worries and fear over the pandemic itself. It’s important not to try to hide from or deny those feelings, but to acknowledge them.
- Try journaling. Journaling is helpful for everyone, but it can be especially useful for teens, who may struggle to share their fears and worries out loud. Writing down concerns, putting those feelings into conscious awareness, can help in making them seem less overwhelming.
- If you’re struggling, reach out. Speak to those you are closest to, whether it’s a friend, your parent, a brother or sister, roommates or anyone else about how you’re feeling. You can also make an appointment with a professional to discuss treatments available, whether it’s ongoing therapy or considering medication.
How can parents support their teen’s mental health during the pandemic?
For parents, this time can be exceptionally worrying. They may feel concerned that their teens are anxious, struggling with depression, or becoming disengaged from the world around them.
“For parents, I would suggest making sure you’re very intentional about monitoring screen time, especially social media use,” Dr. Loper said. “The use of social media is correlated with increased suicidal thoughts, and with the pandemic many teens are getting most of their social interaction online.”
Support your child in using electronic devices and social media effectively, rather than constantly, and encourage them to get plenty of face-to-face time with close friends and with their family whenever possible.
What to do if you become anxious about leaving the house
With the spread of new COVID-19 variants and after two years of time spent minimizing social engagement, already-existing anxieties can become even more powerful, even debilitating.
“At this point, it’s very important to really choose to challenge yourself to stay engaged,” Dr. Loper said. “Come up with strategies that will help you to stay connected to others, whether it’s trying to spend time with friends outside the home while following safety guidelines or setting up online get-togethers. There is some evidence that getting to see others through Zoom, Facetime, Teams, or whatever program you prefer will still provide some of that release of oxytocin, or the same brain chemical we receive from real-time, face-to-face interaction. It isn’t as significant an amount, but it is some, and it can help you with feelings of isolation.”
This is especially useful as a strategy for teens, who may benefit from unstructured time with friends without the pressures and downsides of social media.
What to do if your child is feeling isolated or anxious
If your child is no longer engaging with their family – such as no longer sitting with the family at dinner, refusing to leave their room, not wanting to leave the house or becoming uncommunicative – this is a potential red flag for anxiety or depression.
Try to re-engage with your child. Set limits on electronic usage without disconnecting them from their friend groups. Make sure to spend time together as a family, encouraging your child to be more involved. Set up movie nights together and have your teen choose the film you watch and ask open-ended questions about their day.
Above all, be open to listening if they come to you with problems and concerns and help them to find solutions.
If you are struggling to get your teen to reconnect, speak to a professional. They may have other strategies and ideas to utilize and be able to help you access them.
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