The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on everyone’s mental health, but according to a new study from the University of Calgary, youth have been particularly hard-hit. With survey responses from tens of thousands of children around the world, the study finds that symptoms of depression and anxiety in youth have doubled since the start of the pandemic.
The study was led by Nicole Racine, a postdoctoral fellow and clinical psychologist in the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology, and published in JAMA Pediatrics.
COVID-19 is making the mental health crisis even worse
Even before the pandemic, mental illness among children and adolescents was a significant concern, with slightly more than 10% of youth reporting clinically significant symptoms of generalized anxiety and depression. And while there have been some positive benefits of social distancing, it isn’t surprising that all of these changes to our regular lives — from online learning, to stay-at-home orders, to losing loved ones — could exacerbate mental health issues.
“Being socially isolated, kept away from their friends, their school routines, and social interactions has proven to be really hard on kids,” explained co-author Sheri Madigan, a clinical psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development at the University of Calgary, in a press release.
While numerous studies over the past year and a half have hinted at the negative mental health effects of the pandemic, Racine and her colleagues wanted to see how youth mental health had been impacted on a global scale.
To do this, they combined results from 29 different surveys covering more than 80,000 youth globally, with a focus on how rates of depression and anxiety had changed. The surveys included respondents from East Asia, Europe, North America, Central America, South America, and the Middle East.
Rates of depression and anxiety have doubled
Overall, the surveys showed that youth are now experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety at rates of 25% and 20% respectively — roughly double what was measured prior to the pandemic.
When they looked at the results in more detail, the researchers also found that among these elevated levels of mental illness, older adolescents and girls were the hardest hit.
“Once you enter adolescence […] your peers can actually become your most important source of social support,” Racine explained. “That support was greatly reduced, and in some cases absent altogether, during the pandemic.”
After more than a year of the pandemic, many youth have also missed out on important milestones that they might have been looking forward to for many years. Racine and her colleagues believe that this could also be a factor in the mental health crisis.
“These kids didn’t imagine that when they graduated, they’d never get to say goodbye to their school, their teachers or their friends, and now they’re moving on to something new, with zero closure,” Racine said. “There’s a grieving process associated with that.”
As we move forward through the pandemic, it will be important to make sure that youth have the mental health support they need. One way to do this is to make sure that students understand the symptoms of mental illness and know how to reach out for help.
“If we want to mitigate the sustained mental health effects of COVID-19 […] we have to prioritize recovery planning now,” Madigan said. “Not when the pandemic is over, but immediately. Because kids are in crisis right now.”
In Canada, the Crisis Text Line powered by Kids Help Phone allows youth to access free mental health support 24/7. Text HOME to 686868 to text with a trained Crisis Responder.