The COVID-19 shutdowns have created a category of unlikely victims of collateral damage in teenagers.
Inasmuch as 8 out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths are among people aged 65 or older, few would have expected teens to suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus, but increased rates of anxiety and depression among America’s youth signal a palpable threat from suicide.
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Survey data on mental health compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depict a worrisome new trend among young adults since the onset of the nationwide lockdowns. Between March and June, suicide risk rose sharply for Americans across the board—perhaps not surprisingly, given the economic impact of the pandemic on American livelihoods.
The rise in suicide cases, though, was most pronounced among the nation’s youths. While 11% of respondents to the CDC survey had “seriously considered” suicide in the past month, that same figure jumps to 25% for people aged 18 to 24—a deeply worrisome statistic to health officials across the country.
Many experts say that the stringent social distancing measures put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 have significantly worsened teen mental health. Because teenagers are social by nature and developmentally reliant on their peers, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues among an age cohort already vulnerable to begin with.
According to CDC data, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24. The effects of isolation are heightening this trend. The closure of schools and other social meeting spots youth normally frequent has forced students to stay confined to their homes, increasing the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts for people of this age group.
Given the increased risk of teen suicide, being able to recognize the classic symptoms of depression and suicidal behavior could mean the difference between life and death. According to Ellice Park, a licensed professional counselor and wellness coach in central Ohio, signs of teenage depression and suicidality consist of both external and internal symptoms.
Among external signs, unusual behaviors to watch out for include “crying spells, conflict with family or friends, insomnia or sleeping too much (hypersomnia), changes in appetite with changes in weight, use of mood-altering chemicals or substances, restlessness, agitation like hand-wringing or an inability to sit still, slowed thinking/speaking or body movements, frequent complaints of unexplained body [aches] and headaches, poor school performance, less attention to personal hygiene or appearance, angry outbursts, bodily self-harm, and most tellingly, making suicide attempts or plans.”
Internal symptoms might be more subtle and less noticeable to the outside observer, but can include “irritability, loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, feelings of hopelessness or emptiness, extreme self-blame or self-criticism, extreme sensitivity, trouble thinking and making decisions, frequent forgetfulness, an ongoing sense that life and the future are grim or bleak, and persistent thoughts of death, dying, or suicide.”
Park stresses the importance of “checking in” with loved ones. With regard to mental health, open dialogue is key, she says.
It can be hard to mark internal symptoms for parents, so talk to your teen. See if they seem capable of managing challenging feelings by themselves, or if they seem overwhelmed.
That may be a good indicator it is worth providing them professional support to assess and work through it.
Most importantly, Park advises parents or family members against taking on any “unnecessary guilt” or “undue burden” for their child’s suffering. Doing so would only make it harder for them to support their teenager.
To help their teens through the pandemic, Park urges parents to help them find new hobbies to keep them active. Writing and art, in particular, can be a great way for teens to process their emotions. If a teen already has a favorite hobby, on the other hand, reinforcing those favorite activities can help keep him or her occupied and lessen the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.
Ensuring the teen stays physically active during the lockdown is another way to boost his or her mental health while providing him or her with a healthy outlet for managing emotions.
Other ways parents or family members can get actively involved include consulting with a trusted therapist or contacting a minister, priest, or other spiritual adviser.
For more information on teen suicidality and mental health, contact a crisis hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If experiencing severe symptoms of depression, seek help from a mental health professional immediately or from the nearest hospital.