By Chris Croll
Are teens really more depressed during COVID-19? It depends on who you ask.
For many months, parents in local Facebook groups and at School Board meetings have shared that their teens are suffering from debilitating isolation and loneliness brought on, or exacerbated, by COVID-19 restrictions related to the closing of our public schools.
“I’ve shed many tears at the very real threat to the mental stability of my child,” one mom says. Others say they are watching their children suffer from being cut off from all the things that make kids feel good: Friends, school activities, sports, and daily routines. Many parents blame prolonged distance learning for their teen’s mental distress.
Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease have issued statements imploring schools to safely reopen as soon as possible. Elected leaders have also spoken out in favor of opening schools for the benefit of teen mental health. Some members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors have even threatened to withhold school funding until a plan to fully reopen our schools is put firmly into place.
But there is another group of parents out there, who are far less vocal, who say their kids are doing better during distance learning than they ever have before. Parents of these teens say that their kids went from being anxious and depressed before the pandemic to thriving in the distance learning environment. “My son is less anxious than he ever was when he was going to school in person,” one mom says. “My introverted child loves distance learning and hopes he always has this option,” shares another. These parents say their children not having to deal with bullying, teen drama or pressure to be social at school has resulted in happier, healthier kids.
So how is it that some teens are hurting so much while others are flourishing? Is social isolation “the great equalizer” that has eliminated factors that lead to depression for some students, but in doing so, has created new mental health issues for others?
And what about youth suicide? News stories from Las Vegas and other parts of the country show that teen suicide is skyrocketing. Parents here in Loudoun worry suicides in our community could also be on the rise (statistics are not typically published for privacy reasons). Other parents in our community wonder if distance learning may be reducing teen suicide numbers since depressed and anxious teens are protected from many social stressors and are being more closely monitored at home by their parents and other caregivers.
We likely will not know the full extent of how the pandemic has impacted teen mental health for some time. What we do know is that teen anxiety, depression, and suicide have been on the rise in our community for many years. We also know that teen suicide is prevalent across all ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and geographical communities. Whether your child has struggled with mental health in the past or not, every teen will hit emotional speed bumps at some point in their development.
Parents can help teens build resilience and inner strength by engaging them with programs that teach mindfulness and positive psychology. Community nonprofits, such as Ryan Bartel Foundation, offer free, online, evidence-led “FORTitude” workshops and meetups where teens can learn and practice positive thinking skills. Loudoun County Public Schools offers teens training in national programs such as, “Sources of Strength,” which encourage students to engage in behaviors that are known to be protective factors against teen suicide, including building strong connections with peers and caring adults.
Whether your teen is suffering or thriving during distance learning, helping them develop skills to ward off negative thoughts and maintain strong connections with others can support a lifetime of positive mental health.
Chris Croll is a writer, empathy activist and communications consultant. She sits on the Board of the Ryan Bartel Foundation, a youth suicide prevention nonprofit, and lives in Leesburg with her husband and two teenage boys.