Teens face untold pressures even during the most ordinary times. COVID-19 added new pressures to those many were already facing at home, school and in their community.
Now as we look forward to coming out of the pandemic, there is a national call for a swift, coordinated response to address the mental health crisis affecting young people.
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and they are widespread,” said US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a public statement. “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide – and rates have increased over the past decade.”
The good news is the growing number of people and institutions that are stepping up to support youth mental health. Especially helpful has been growing recognition that mental health is an essential part of overall health and that there are many ways to help improve youth mental health.
“When it comes to teens, it’s important for parents or guardians to stay positive and keep the lines of communication open,” says Gurinder Dabhia, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo.
“It’s okay to be persistent and not give up on your adolescent if he or she refuses to talk at first,” she adds. “Talking about depression can be tough but helpful.”
While a return to normal is on the horizon, the struggles imposed by the pandemic will likely continue to affect families for some time.
Dr. Dabhia recommends parents or guardians to continue checking in with their children and watch and listen for signs of depression or anxiety.
“Make sure to talk to your teen frequently and offer your support,” adds Dr. Dabhia. “Make it clear you are willing to offer whatever support they need.”
Talk but make sure to listen, she adds. “Accept what your teen tells you without judging or criticizing. It’s important to validate their feelings.”
Because normal behaviors vary as children and teens develop, it can be challenging to know if your teen is going through a temporary phase or is experiencing depression or anxiety. However, there are warning signs for both conditions that can help parents.
“Teenagers can be moody and temperamental at times. Keep in mind, they’re going through physical changes and asking questions about who they are and what they want to do with their lives as they become more independent,” Dr. Dabhia says.
“While occasional bad moods and acting out can be normal adolescent conduct, these types of behaviors also can indicate underlying depression or anxiety.”
Signs that may indicate depression include:
- Sudden bursts of anger coupled with irritability
- Negative thinking
- Extreme sensitivity to criticism
- Feeling misunderstood
- A drop in school grades, attendance or not doing homework
- High-risk behaviors, such as using alcohol and drugs
- A change in sleeping patterns or trouble sleeping
- A change in eating habits, such as eating more or less than usual
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches
- Withdrawal from family and friends, including texting and video chatting
Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at times, and it is a normal reaction to stress. When anxiety seems to be continually out of proportion to the situation and affects your teen’s daily life and happiness, then it may signal an anxiety disorder. Symptoms include:
- Excessive worry most days of the week
- Trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
- Restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
- Trouble concentrating
“Depression and anxiety often occur together, although they should be diagnosed separately and treated as two separate issues,” says Dr. Dabhia.
If your teen exhibits signs of depression or anxiety that persist for more than two weeks, make an appointment with your teen’s doctor or pediatrician.
The doctor will ask the appropriate screening questions, usually with the parents present, and will also have a confidential discussion with your child. If necessary, your doctor can refer you to a specialist.
“Be ready to discuss specific information about your adolescent’s symptoms, including how long they’ve been present, how much they’re affecting your teen’s daily life and any patterns you’ve noticed,” Dr. Dabhia says.
In addition, bring up any family history of close relatives who have been diagnosed with a mood disorder or mental illness, as well as events in your own immediate family.
Sometimes depression or anxiety may be triggered by changes within the family unit, such as a divorce, remarriage, a new sibling or move. During the pandemic, it could have been the loss of a family member or friend to COVID or another illness or the loss of a job.
Any suicide talk should be taken seriously. Seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or texting the Crisis Text Line by texting 'TALK' to 741741.
Pediatricians can screen for depression and ask about other concerns like anxiety or trouble coping with stress. They can also screen for suicide risk.
“Don’t think you can just talk your adolescent out of his or her anxiety or depression. Learn to take the stresses and worries of your child or teen seriously and never dismiss talk of suicide,” Dr. Dabhia says.