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Anxiety and Depression Most Severe in Kids Right Now, Report Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • A report from Mental Health America shows children are experiencing the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any demographic.
  • The risk of youth suicide is also high, as young people suffer loneliness and isolation away from friends and peers.
  • Talking to your child about their concerns and feelings can prevent their symptoms from worsening.

We've long understood the school environment to play a complex role in a child's development. But the pandemic has made painfully clear just how crucial that role can be to a child's well-being. In fact, some Las Vegas schools are pushing to reopen due, in part, to a steep rise in suicides among students.

While the cause of these suicides cannot be conclusively determined as school closures, the monumental impact lockdown has had on children cannot be overlooked. We're seeing a crisis within a crisis, as state and school district officials try to balance public health and the mental well-being of students.

To illustrate the emotional toll of the pandemic, a recent report from Mental Health America highlights the internal struggle children are experiencing. And the data shows that COVID-19 is threatening lives in more ways than one.

The Report

Through an online screening program, Mental Health America was able to compile data on the psychological health of over 1.5 million Americans, 38% of whom were aged 11-17.

"Screening tools are a great way for people to see if they may have a mental health issue," says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and author. "Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses often go undetected. This can be especially true in children, as their symptoms may not look like what parents expect."

The report states the number of people looking for help with anxiety or depression has "skyrocketed," as screenings for each saw a 93% and 62% increase, respectively, between January and September 2020 over the entirety of 2019. And the number of people reporting moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression continues to climb higher than pre-pandemic rates.

When it comes to individuals aged 11-17, specifically, the report shows that throughout the pandemic, this age group was more likely than any other to score for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. By September 2020, 84% of 11-17-year-olds scored for moderate to severe anxiety, while 90% scored for moderate to severe depression.

Camille Henderson, PsyS

I worry more about students who are needing help for the first time in this moment. Help is harder to find than ever in some ways, with a reduction of in-person services, long waiting lists, and exhausted mental health professionals. 

— Camille Henderson, PsyS

School psychologist Camille Henderson, PsyS, says the report aligns with what she's currently seeing in her own work.

"Social interaction lights up our brains in ways that few other things do," she says. "These interactions are protective against all kinds of physical and mental health problems."

While Henderson worries for all students experiencing anxiety and depression during the pandemic, she's especially concerned for the students for whom these symptoms are brand new.

"Though both (instances) are certainly challenging, I worry more about students who are needing help for the first time in this moment," Henderson says. "Help is harder to find than ever in some ways, with a reduction of in-person services, long waiting lists and exhausted mental health professionals. Seeking mental health support is its own skillset."

The Risk of Suicide

While Las Vegas might be in the spotlight right now, the devastating reality is that this issue is present throughout the country. And it's been present. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for older children and teenagers, and instances of youth and adolescent suicide had already reached record highs before the pandemic.

But now we're seeing symptoms of anxiety and depression exacerbated by a global traumatic event, and the younger population is largely the hardest hit. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports mental health conditions are disproportionately affecting certain populations, one being young people.

To make things worse, without schools, many kids have lost access to friends, sports, clubs, and other typical activities used for coping under normal circumstances. This loss, paired with in-house isolation and lack of mental health services once provided by schools, can lead to a dangerously overwhelming mental spiral.

"Feelings of loneliness and isolation are uncomfortable for any of us and frequently lead to other unhealthy coping mechanisms like increased screen time, eating or other substance use and feed anxiety and depression further," Henderson says. "Increased opportunities to practice these numbing behaviors has definitely been a challenge for some of the students I serve. Roads we frequently travel become well worn."

The result is that children are facing feelings of hopelessness. The Mental Health America report shows this demographic is experiencing the highest rates of suicidal ideation, especially those that identify as LGBTQ+.

In September, more than half of 11-17-year-olds reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks.

Amy Morin, LCSW

Talk about feelings and validate how your child is feeling, even if you don't understand. Rather than say, 'Don't worry about it,' say, 'I understand you are nervous right now.'

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Parenting in the Pandemic

Parents have uniquely difficult roles right now in managing the stress of the pandemic for both themselves and their families. But this shared experience is an opportunity to help your child cope with their own emotions and anxiety.

"Parents can help children cope with their feelings by showing them how it’s done," Henderson says. "Naming your own feelings and showing your children what you are going to do to manage them helps children understand that this is a normal part of being human."

But first, you must gauge how your child is feeling. Morin urges parents to be on the lookout, especially now, for warning signs of potential distress, such as changes in mood or behavior. Then, if you do pick up on these things, it's time to have a conversation.

"Talk about feelings and validate how your child is feeling, even if you don't understand," Morin says. "Rather than say, 'Don't worry about it,' say, 'I understand you are nervous right now.' This can go a long way toward helping them open up about their feelings. If you suspect they're struggling, don't hesitate to talk to their doctor about getting help."

And having these conversations with your child not only helps, but can empower them, says Annie George-Puskar, PhD, an educational psychologist and assistant professor at Fordham University.

"Teenagers may be talking about their mental health to other teenagers, so including your own children in the conversation could provide them an opportunity to help a friend by knowing to direct them toward more professional and appropriate support," George-Puskar says.

Annie George-Puskar

Teenagers may be talking about their mental health to other teenagers, so including your own children in the conversation could provide them an opportunity to help a friend by knowing to direct them toward more professional and appropriate support.

— Annie George-Puskar

Universally, a child will benefit from having their concerns treated with respect by a caring adult. Talking through it is important, but so is helping to find a solution—and solutions can vary for children of different ages.

"Younger children, or people with disabilities often use pictures to help them understand what they’re feeling and what their options might be, older children may enjoy keeping mood diaries to track how they’re feeling, what’s happening in their lives, and what’s working for them," Henderson says.

It's important to note that there are resources available to you if your child is experiencing anxiety or depression. Morin recommends the Anxiety and Depression Association of America where you can find reputable screening tools for children. However, if the symptoms are severe, it may be helpful to reach out to a doctor or therapist (online or in-person) to discuss your concerns.

Annie George-Puskar, PhD

I think we need to be prepared for some more long term impact on mental health. Research has shown that children and teens may experience symptoms of depression up to nine years after experiencing extended feelings of loneliness.

— Annie George-Puskar, PhD

Looking Toward the Future

It's unclear how severe the full impact of this pandemic will be. But it's safe to say that impact will be felt both globally and generationally. As we move forward, young people may need the most support.

"I think we need to be prepared for some more long-term impact on mental health," George-Puskar says. "Research has shown that children and teens may experience symptoms of depression up to nine years after experiencing extended feelings of loneliness."

Part of addressing this impact will be continuing to maintain open lines of communication between parents and their children on issues of mental health. Talking through feelings and fears can help a child feel less alone and, perhaps, save their life.

What This Means For You

Help your child to cope with anxiety and depression by hearing them out and sharing your own feelings. But if you believe your child is in immediate danger of a suicide attempt, call 911 or your local emergency room and ask for assistance.

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Article Sources
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  1. Mental Health America. 2021 state of mental health In America. Published October 20, 2020.

  2. Curtin SC, Heron M. Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10–24: United States, 2000–2017. NCHS Data Brief, no 352. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2019.

  3. 3. Czeisler M, Drane A, Winnay S et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation Among Unpaid Caregivers in the United States During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Relationships to Age, Race/Ethnicity, Employment, and Caregiver IntensitySSRN Electronic Journal. 2020. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3741244