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Teens Experienced More Abuse and Depression During COVID-19

A broad range of problems may lead to youths' mental health decline.

Key points

  • More teens reported physical and emotional abuse during the first half of 2021.
  • Young people are also reporting higher rates of depression.
  • Familial stressors such as financial worries and food insecurity have contributed to teen's mental health problems.
New Africa/AdobeStock
Source: New Africa/AdobeStock

A new survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals bleak circumstances for many U.S. teens, who were already more likely to suffer from abuse and depression while staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a nationwide survey of more than 7,700 high school students during the first half of 2021, 55 percent reported that they experienced emotional abuse from an adult in their house in the past year; 11 percent said they experienced physical abuse. That’s an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2013, which found that 14 percent of teens experienced emotional abuse and 6 percent experienced physical abuse. (The survey defined emotional abuse as swearing, insulting, or using put-downs; it defined physical abuse as hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting.)

In addition, 44 percent of teens in the 2021 survey reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness that prevented them from participating in normal activities. Almost 20 percent of teens said they had considered suicide, and 9 percent said they attempted suicide.

COVID-19 and teen mental health

The news isn’t a surprise to anyone working in public health. In December, the U.S. Surgeon General reported the pandemic has been “devastating” for youth mental health. In comparison to 2019, emergency room visits for suicide attempts in 2021 increased by 51 percent for adolescent girls; attempts increased by 4 percent for boys.

Teens faced a number of other problems which contributed to their mental health decline. More than 23 percent surveyed said that during the pandemic, they went hungry because there was not enough food in their house, and more than 28 percent reported that an adult in their home had lost their job.

The survey also found that mental health was better among students who described a strong sense of “connectedness” or closeness with people at school, even when they were attending school remotely.

There’s a lot to analyze here, explained Kaylin Ratner, a post-doctoral fellow in Cornell’s Department of Psychology and an affiliate of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

“The takeaway is that teen mental health doesn’t operate in a vacuum—there are layers upon layers of influences,” she said. “The way someone is feeling and functioning cannot be disentangled from their environment.

“Regarding the abuse findings, we know many families are experiencing increased financial and employment stress,” she said. “Parents are understandably edgier, and teens may be the collateral damage related to that. For youth living in environments prone to abuse, lockdowns increased the likelihood that they would be exposed to those behaviors.”

It’s not surprising that the additional pressures associated with the pandemic—including the stresses of home life and the inconsistency of school attendance over the past two years—contributed to mental health problems. "We have to consider the cascade of stress that is falling on these children," Ratner said.

There are a few other factors at play, Ratner added. First, there is evidence that young people are more open to talking about and disclosing their feelings and struggles, which likely accounts for some of the reported increases in depression and anxiety. “Increased reporting of these issues is not always a bad thing,” Ratner said. “COVID has exacerbated mental health problems, but it’s good that young people are talking about this; otherwise, we can’t help them.”

In addition, there is evidence that pandemic lockdowns corresponded with improved mental health for some young people. Adolescent girls, especially, reported more time to relax and less pressure to perform at school. “These benefits were reported in the early days of the pandemic when much of America was locked down,” Ratner said. “For some youth with supportive families at home, this initial period provided some relief from the stresses of being a teen.”

The take-home message

Increased exposure to abuse and a decline in mental health among teens is one of the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are some silver linings: There is some evidence that teens are more open to talking about and reporting mental health problems, which could potentially help them and lead to treatment; for some, pandemic lockdowns may have provided a reprieve from the stresses of modern teen life.

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