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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 due to extended time 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.

The monumental impact lockdown had on children cannot be overlooked. We've seen a crisis within a crisis, as state and school district officials faced the daunting challenge of trying 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 have been experiencing due to COVID-19. And the data shows that coronavirus threatened lives in more ways than one.

The Report's Findings

Through an online screening program, Mental Health America compiled data on the psychological health of over 1.5 million Americans, 38% of whom were aged 11 to 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 found the number of people looking for help with anxiety or depression "skyrocketed," as screenings for each saw a 93% and 62% increase, respectively, between January and September of 2020 compared to the entirety of 2019. And the number of people reporting moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression continued to climb higher than pre-pandemic rates.

Among individuals aged 11 to 17, specifically, the report shows that 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- to 17-year-olds scored for moderate to severe anxiety, while 90% scored for moderate to severe depression.

School psychologist Camille Henderson, PsyS, says the report aligns with what she's seen 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 who experienced anxiety and depression during the pandemic, she's especially concerned for the students for whom these symptoms were brand new, as a result of COVID-19-related social distancing.

"Though both (instances) are certainly challenging, I worry more about students who are needing help for the first time in this moment," says Henderson. "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

The devastating reality is the threat of suicide among teens 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've witnessed symptoms of anxiety and depression exacerbated by a global traumatic event, and the younger population has been hit hard. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports mental health conditions are disproportionately affecting certain populations, one being young people.

To make things worse, without schools, many kids 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 were left 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 2020, more than half of 11- to 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 a Pandemic

Parents have adopted uniquely difficult roles while managing the stress of a pandemic for both themselves and their families. But this shared experience is an opportunity to help children 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, PhD

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, PhD

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.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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. Czeisler MÉ, 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 Journal. 2020. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3741244