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How Teens and Young Adults Can Recover Mentally From the Pandemic

Teenager curled up looking sad
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Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of teens and young adults.
  • Almost one-third of teenage boys and young men reported worse mood or higher levels of anxiety during the early months of the pandemic, according to a new study.
  • Parents can help their teens readjust to "normal" life by encouraging honest conversations about their mental health, say experts.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching, and one of the most devastating impacts has been on our collective mental health. Even teens and young adults, for whom the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 is lower, have suffered. 

A recent study, co-led by researchers at Ohio State University and Kenyon College and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that almost one-third of the 571 participants (teenage boys and young men in urban and Appalachian Ohio) reported that their mood had worsened or their anxiety had increased between March 2020 and June 2020.

The study found that these effects were more likely in those with higher socioeconomic status, those who felt a decreasing closeness to friends and family, and those who were older. Higher levels of anxiety were most commonly reported in those with a history of depression and/or anxiety.

One participant spoke of "a return to a much more introverted, anxious, and sedentary lifestyle, after recently making attempts to become more social, outgoing, and level-headed."

Why This Research Matters

It's important to be aware of these findings during adolescence, people are already vulnerable to feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. "Due to the school closures, loss of income for some, and general changes to daily living as a result of the pandemic, we know that adolescents were at risk of experiencing significant deteriorations in mental health and well-being," says senior author Amy Ferketich, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University.

Amy Morin, LCSW

It will take a while to get used to the new normal that we're experiencing as restrictions lift. So it makes sense to give young people a bit of a readjustment period as they make the transition.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

This particular study focused on boys and young men, and while it's hard to say whether the results would be different for girls and young women, Ferketich points out that in general, the prevalence of depression is consistently higher among women. UNICEF conducted a study with adolescents in several countries during the pandemic and reported that a higher percentage of females were pessimistic about the future (43% among young women compared to 31% among young men).

The new study isn't all negative. "One positive finding that I would like to highlight is that 14% of participants reported that they experienced something positive or perceived self-growth as a result of the pandemic," says Ferketich.

"The time at home allowed some to experience an emotional healing." She refers to a quote from one participant: “Staying home because of COVID-19 has given me a lot of time to think about my life which has allowed me to make breakthroughs on my mental health.”

Post-Pandemic Readjustment

Going back to school, socializing, and other aspects of “normal life” might be difficult for some young people, says psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, author of “13 Things Strong Kids Do” and the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind.

"It took a while to adjust to life during the pandemic. Wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and staying home was out of the ordinary. But we got used to it. It will take a while to get used to the new normal that we're experiencing as restrictions lift. So it makes sense to give young people a bit of a readjustment period as they make the transition," she explains.

To help with the transition, Morin recommends easing back into things slowly, rather than feeling overwhelmed by putting pressure on yourself to take part in lots of activities right away. ”It might be better to start with one or two activities or one or two social engagements at a time,“ she suggests. “It’s a great time to reset habits and decide how to take care of your mental health moving forward.”

Supporting Your Teen

The best ways to support the teens and young adults in your life at this time are by talking and listening. "It's important to hold regular conversations about mental health," Morin says.

And don't feel that you have to keep your own anxieties and concerns hidden. "While parents shouldn't burden kids with adult issues, it could be good for them to hear that adults are also feeling the strain," Morin explains. She recommends talking about the steps you're taking to care for your own mental health and inviting your young people to share any concerns they have.

It's also a great opportunity to normalize asking for help. "Parents may want to tell their kids that they see a therapist or talk about how to know if talking to a professional might be a good idea," says Morin. If you talk about mental health checkups similar to the way you might talk about a physical health checkup, it becomes less of a big deal.

What This Means For You

Paying close attention to your teen's behavior and habits can help you pick up early signs of a mental health issue. Changes in sleep habits, loss of interest in usual activities, major changes in academic performance, and weight or appetite changes are some warning signs.

If your teen won't talk to you about how they're feeling, encourage them to confide in another trusted adult, such as a relative, family friend, coach, or guidance counselor.

Your doctor can also provide advice and support and may be able to recommend a local therapist.

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Article Sources
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  1. Tetreault E, Teferra AA, Keller-Hamilton B, et al. Perceived changes in mood and anxiety among male youth during the COVID-19 pandemic: findings from a mixed-methods study. J Adolesc Health. 2021;69(2):227-233. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.05.004

  2. UNICEF. The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of adolescents and youth. Updated October 9, 2020.