How the Pandemic Impacted Teenage Mental Health

14% of 10-19-year-olds have had or experienced a mental health condition.  

Also, a meta-analysis of 29 studies involving 80,879 youth revealed that approximately one in five experienced elevated anxiety levels in 2020, while one in four adolescents experienced increased depression.

It’s time to take teenage mental health seriously, especially in the wake of the pandemic’s impact. If left untreated, mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, will have lifelong consequences for many of our kids. 

In this post, we will discuss:

  • Mental health and the impact of long-term mental health conditions
  • How the pandemic impacted teenage mental health
  • Teens experiencing anxiety and depression
  • How neurofeedback can help

 

Understanding Mental Health

Mental health affects how we think, feel, and act as we cope with life. It helps us determine how we make choices, manage stress, and interact with others. 

There are countless factors that can impact your mental health. Here are a few:

  • Diet and exercise
  • Smoking, alcohol consumption, or substance use
  • Family medical history
  • Genes or brain chemistry
  • Mental, emotional, or physical trauma 
  • Family life
  • Work life 
  • Work/life balance 

Mental health disorders are serious conditions that can have a negative impact on how we function. Sometimes, they can also lead to physical health disorders, like high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke. 

There are also numerous warning signs that you are experiencing a mental health condition, including behavioral changes/mood swings, feelings of numbness or withdrawal, a lack of energy, and an inability to “get out of your head.”

Consider this:

  • 59% of Americans surveyed stated the pandemic affected their mental health.
  • 25% of Americans have a mental health or substance use disorder.
  • Nearly 33% of people experiencing long-term mental health conditions also have a physical health problem, often anxiety, depression, or increased use of drugs and/or alcohol.

Sometimes taking a mental health day or two can rebalance your body. However, that doesn’t always help. 

 

How the Pandemic Impacted Teenage Mental Health

Your preteen and teenage years are when you start developing habits vital for your mental health, like:

  • Developing coping and interpersonal skills 
  • Learning how to manage your emotions
  • Establishing healthy sleep patterns
  • Exercising regularly

The pandemic had adverse consequences for all these habits. For example, researchers found that kids ages 12 and 13 in the US doubled their screen time in May 2020 from 3.8 to 7.7 hours per day. The study didn’t even include school-related screen time.

It’s hard to develop these habits when most of your social interaction is through a screen.  Studies show that extended time on social media is linked to depression and anxiety in teens, and that two or more hours of screen time at night can substantially disrupt the melatonin surge you need to fall asleep.

We also know that there was a steep drop in exercise, especially during the shutdown. A descriptive study taken from the walking activity of over 450,000 app users revealed a 27.3% drop in daily walking averages from January 19 to June 1, 2020.

Although everyday life is returning to something resembling normal, we are just beginning to understand the consequences these last two years have had on our mental health. 

 

Teens Experiencing Anxiety and Depression

Without treatment, prolonged feelings of anxiety or depression can restructure your brain, impact your cognition function, overwhelm your “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and affect your ability to think rationally.

 

How is Anxiety Different in Teens?

Teenagers have a lot to be anxious about. During their adolescent years, children worry about external things, like a monster under the bed, or something bad happening to a parent. When kids become teens, many of their anxieties are internal. 

According to the Child Mind Institute, there are three key areas where teenage anxiety spikes:

Performance

Many teenagers fear not doing well, particularly when it comes to academics, sports, and work ethic. Even if you tell your kids not to stress too much about college or their future, teens will still feel the intense pressure to succeed. 

Perception 

Social anxiety, or social phobia, is rampant for teens. Many of them feel nervous or shy in front of others, and can be extremely self-conscious. It’s estimated that 9.1% of teenagers are experiencing a social anxiety disorder. As we’ve seen in recent studies, social media only exacerbates this problem.

Body Image 

The physical changes teenagers are experiencing can be a huge cause of discomfort for them. Imagine going through puberty a couple years before your classmates, or still look like you’re 10 when everyone else looks 18. Body image issues can lead to body dysmorphic disorder, where teenagers become obsessed with what they believe is a flaw in their appearance.

 

Teens Experiencing Depression

In 2021, 15.08% of youth ages 12-17 reported suffering from one or more major depressive episodes (MDE). That’s an increase of 1.24% from 2020. Even more troubling: 60.3% of youth experiencing severe depression aren’t receiving any mental health treatment.

Everyone gets depressed sometimes. Much like anxiety, depression becomes problematic when these feelings are the constant, not the norm. Teenagers might be experiencing depression for many reasons, including:

Hormones

While teenagers’ bodies are changing, it’s easy for their hormones to be thrown off balance. If they’re unable to return to homeostasis, this imbalance can cause or trigger depression.

Genetics

If a blood relative, such as a parent or grandparent, suffers from depression, they can pass this trait to their children.

Childhood Trauma

If a teen experiences a trauma event(s) during early childhood, like the loss of a loved one, or emotional or physical abuse, it can cause changes in their brain to occur, making them more susceptible to feelings of depression.

Brain Chemistry

Your brain’s neurotransmitters are natural brain chemicals that help your brain communicate with other parts of your body. If your neurotransmitters are impaired or abnormal, it can inhibit their ability to communicate, which can also cause changes to your nerve systems and lead to feelings of depression.

Repetitive, Negative Thoughts

Your mind is incredibly powerful. If you choose to focus on the negative, or if you’re constantly down on yourself or feel helpless, your brain will begin to associate these feelings with your normal being. Instead of learning to focus on the positives or find solutions to life’s problems, your brain will learn to seek out the negatives. Soon, even simple challenges can begin to feel overwhelming.

 

How Neurofeedback Helps

Teens experiencing performance, perceptive or body image-related anxiety may struggle to overcome it. Therapy can be effective, but the work required can take years and requires you to relive traumatic memories and requires practice and experience beyond just talking about it. Medication may ease symptoms and provide a new experience, but often comes with undesirable side effects.  

Both anxiety and depression often lead to repetitive, negative thoughts that you can’t get out of your head. Neurofeedback can help retrain your brain and unlearn these patterns. By self-correcting, you’ll likely find yourself more calm, collected, and less anxious. 

One recent study backs this up, finding that neurofeedback’s successful self-regulation of your amygdala’s regulatory circuits can control your anxiety levels.

Another study reveals that neurofeedback treatment may be effective for treatment-resistant depression.

Teenagers struggle with enough during normal times. These last two years have only increased their chances of feeling anxious, sad, and lost. However, feelings of depression and anxiety can be overcome in healthy ways. 

Teenage mental health may be a crisis right now, but it’s a crisis we can manage.

If you’d like to learn more about how neurofeedback can improve teenage mental health, schedule a visit or contact us to receive a free 15-minute phone consultation.

 

In health,

Dr. Jessica Wendling


Sources:

  1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
  2. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2782796
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  5. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/mental-health-substance-use-disorders
  6. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2021/11/421701/adolescents-recreational-screen-time-doubled-during-pandemic-affecting-mental
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  12.  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/social-anxiety-disorder
  13. https://childmind.org/article/body-dysmorphic-disorder/
  14. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-youth-data
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