SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Being a teenager can be difficult no matter what, and the pandemic is making it even harder. With school closures, canceled events and the risk of getting sick, kids are dealing with all kinds of new issues, and it’s affecting their mental health.
In 2019, before COVID-19 hit, a Pew Research survey found 20% of teens struggled with mental health.
But a study of 1,500 teenagers conducted in May 2020 by the National 4-H Council saw a significantly higher number. They found:
- Seven out of 10 teens are struggling with their mental health in some way
- 55% said they’d experienced anxiety
- 45% said they felt excess stress
- 43% said they’d struggled with depression
Hallie Rees fits into those categories.
“I was like, I can’t do this anymore. My anxiety is just taking over me and my depression is taking over me,” she said.
The bubbly 13-year-old made the cheer team this year and has a ton of friends. But not being able to see all of them gave her anxiety, and online school made it worse.
“I could not focus at all, and it took me five hours to do one assignment,” said Rees. “I’d just usually stay in my room and not talk to anyone because I couldn’t do it anymore, and it was just really hard for me.”
Madison Balser’s anxieties are different. The 16-year-old said she’s worried about getting COVID-19 at school because she can’t fall behind in her high-level courses. But she’s also scared of bringing it home.
“My mom is super high risk and she’s a teacher at the junior high school,” Balser said. “And I know that if she got it, she would have to miss her classes and have to get a sub, on top of probably having to be hospitalized because of (how) high risk she is.”
Then there’s 9-year-old Addison Fankhauser.
“It’s so hard to explain it (anxiety) because they don’t know what it feels like,” she said.
Her mom, Amanda Owens, said Fankhauser has struggled with anxiety for years. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it put her over the edge.
“All the little things added up, and then eventually, it was too much for her and she started acting out and having these fits,” said Owens.
For the first time, Fankhauser had to go on anxiety medication.
“I can’t control it. I can’t. It’s just so hard,” said she. “And my body is just, I have to say stuff to calm down and I say rude stuff and I don’t want to.”
A new study from the University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Institute shows Utah has among the highest rate of young people in the nation with mental health issues who don’t get help – 60% of depressed teens don’t receive treatment for depression.
“The importance of working with young children is a solution that will help us reduce the effects of what we’re seeing later in life with our youth,” said Rebecca Dutson, CEO of The Children’s Center.
But how can you recognize if your own child is struggling?
“I think when it lasts longer than days and weeks, then that’s suggesting that the normal coping strategies aren’t working very well,” said Carin Knight, a licensed clinical social worker at Primary Children’s Hospital. “You’re going to see increased restlessness, sleep problems, appetite problems, increased moodiness. And especially if a teen mentions anything to do with suicidal feelings or thoughts, definitely they need to get help.”
Sometimes, outside help is what the doctor ordered. Both Fankhauser and Rees now see a therapist to help with their anxiety.
All three girls also got a new dog within the past few months. They said that helps, too.
But the most important things experts said parents can do is monitor their child’s stress levels, pay attention to changes in behavior and talk to them a lot.
“I feel like as long as you keep the communication open with your kids, then it will be OK,” said Owens.
Mental health experts said it’s so important to listen and pay attention to your kids. They said it’s also OK to reach out to your primary care physician to ask questions, and they can help decide if your child needs additional help.