COVID-19 and The Mental Health Impact on Children and Young Adults
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
Stress, anxiety, and depression are not just adult issues.
In the U.S. alone, anxiety disorders affect up to 40 million adults every year, and worldwide, it’s estimated that 1 in 13 adults suffers from anxiety. Unfortunately, these numbers have likely climbed as the global community experiences the COVID-19 pandemic.
When you think of stress and anxiety, you may think about adult-specific stressors, such as not being able to meet a work deadline or dealing with issues in your relationship with your partner or family member. But adolescents are also capable of feeling stress and anxiety, and oftentimes, are not fully equipped to address their mental health properly, either because they simply haven’t had enough experience, or they aren’t mature enough to fully understand the breadth of their feelings nor able to implement stress management and anxiety-relieving techniques.
The most common adolescent mental health disorders include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and behavior disorders, with an estimated 7% of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 diagnosed with anxiety. As children grow older into young adults, they’re more likely to experience anxiety and depression, which can stem from issues at home, school, or within their community.
How COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health issues in children and young adults.
As we move into new phases of this global pandemic, the dynamic in our environments is shifting. Children may be returning to in-person learning, or they’re re-adjusting to remote learning after a summer that was unlike any other they’ve experienced. Parents and caregivers are also adjusting, figuring out their work schedules to be able to bring kids to school, or needing to juggle responsibilities at home to oversee remote learning.
These new routines bring stress, and not just the usual stress that comes along with a new school year. Keeping themselves and their families safe and healthy is at the forefront of every adult’s mind, and this ongoing situation continues to be really stressful for adults and adolescents alike. Since the pandemic began, these feelings of stress and anxiety have permeated every decision being made, trickling down from adults to children in unmistakable ways.
Quoted in the New York Times discussing the current state of children’s mental health, Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University’s School of Medicine, said: “‘I’m concerned we’re going to have a generation of compulsive hand-washers, scared of people, anxious and depressed... Parents need to help children talk about their feelings.’” Children learn by observing, and after six months of watching the adults in their lives rush to the sink to wash their hands after every encounter with a surface or crossing the street to avoid oncoming pedestrians, they have probably picked up the anxiety that goes along with that behavior.
In a survey conducted in June 2020, about three months into a worldwide COVID-19 lockdown, researchers demonstrated that 30% of adult respondents reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and over 10% started use or increased use of controlled substances to cope with stress. The age group that reported the most distress was young adults ages 18-24.
This survey didn’t conclude why this age group seems to be suffering more during this time, but a possible explanation could be that people of this age are already experiencing stress as it relates to change and upheaval as they enter adulthood, and may have less experience dealing with uncertainty and adversity than adults in older generations.
Being proactive and nonjudgmental in addressing mental health concerns.
Addressing mental health from a public health standpoint means putting systems and resources in place that provide communities with not just access, but equitable and affordable access to services that treat and manage mental health disorders. But mental health can also be addressed in the places where we spend the majority of our time, and when it comes to children’s mental health concerns, engaging in the discussion at home is a great place to start. In addition to asking how your child is feeling, as the adult, parent, or caregiver, it’s important that you also share how you are feeling, opening the floor for honest communication in a safe and trusted space.
Here are some resources to help you get started:
- For younger kids, this Sesame Street comprehensive resource has articles and videos on how to cope together as a family.
- Check out this guide with 12 tips for starting the conversation about mental health with your kids.
- The Child Mind Institute provides varied content related to dealing with COVID-19, such as managing anxiety, remote learning, and how to address teenager and young adults’ mental health concerns.
In addition to being as proactive as possible when it comes to addressing mental health, being nonjudgmental also goes a long way. The stigma of experiencing mental health issues can prevent someone from receiving the help they want or need, and for a child, that stigma can present further problems, as they can’t go out and get help by themselves. Being open and supportive about their mental health concerns will both allow them to receive the help they may need, as well as create a safe and healthy home environment in which they can thrive.
The impact of nutrition, movement, and sleep on mental health.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders were on the rise before COVID-19. Our reliance on technology, social isolation, and poor diet and lifestyle practices have only increased during this unprecedented time, causing rates of mental health disorders to soar.
Eating a nutritious diet, being physically active, and getting restful sleep are three major factors in our physical and mental well-being. During times of extreme stress and anxiety, it can be difficult to achieve all three, let alone just one or two. For children and young adults, they look up to and depend on the (older) adults in their lives. When those adults demonstrate healthy diet and lifestyle practices, it’s easier for children to emulate and habitually practices those same things.
Here are 3 tips for improving children and young adult’s nutrition, movement and sleep for better mental health:
- Eat the rainbow – Dr. Deanna Minich, visiting teacher in IIN’s Detox Your Life Specialty Course, emphasizes eating varied and colorful foods for ultimate nutritional benefits. Challenge the family to "eat the rainbow" by choosing at least two different-colored foods to add to each meal! Whether fresh or frozen, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is an important part of any diet. It will be an educational yet fun activity for kids and adults alike.
- Get up and away from the computer at least once an hour – It’s easy to get stuck staring at your screen, whether it’s work calls or online classrooms. Encourage the entire family to get up once an hour to stretch and maybe even do a few jumping jacks. It’s an easy way to incorporate regular movement.
- Set a curfew for the family’s electronics – This might be the most difficult one, but will reap great benefits! Blue light from our screens can disrupt our circadian rhythm and our body’s ability to properly wind down for the evening. One hour before bedtime, encourage the entire family to put their phones away and turn off the TV. This could be the beginning of a new family tradition of checking in with each other before going to bed!
While there’s not much we can do to change the situation we’re in, we can change how we respond and behave. By creating a safe space for children and young adults to address their mental health concerns and their concerns about life in general, you will be better able to address their concerns and set them up for success in any future adverse situation. To learn more about how to improve your and your family’s health holistically, check out IIN’s COVID-19 resource guide.