With millions of people affected by the coronavirus worldwide, researchers are beginning to explore its effects beyond the virus’s more obvious medical consequences. A recent article in QJM , a leading medical journal, suggests that COVID-19 will have profound psychological and social effects for months and years to come. Mental health outcomes related to social isolation, fear, and uncertainty can result in depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal behaviors.
Research showed spikes in suicide after the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918-19, when one-third of the world’s population was infected with the virus. Studies concluded that a decrease in social interaction and fears caused by the epidemic likely caused the rise in suicide rates.
Today, young people are more socially connected through the internet. Yet, there are many causes for parents and teachers to be concerned about teen mental health during the coronavirus pandemic. Research conducted during prior pandemics has shown numerous linkages between the mental health of adolescents and viruses like COVID-19. Boredom, frustration, and anger often causes additional family stress. The virus’s uncertain duration, worry about school, and isolation from friends is likely to impact adolescents in unique developmental ways. Low-income and teens of color are even more vulnerable.
What Adults Need to Know About Teen Suicide Risks
Before the COVID-19 crisis began, youth suicide rates were already rising steadily in the United States. In addition, a congressional task force recently sounded an alarm on increasing suicide rates for Black American children and teenagers. The coronavirus has made it tougher for young people to get the help they need because many teens have been and may continue to be distanced from school where teachers, sports coaches, and counselors can observe and support them.
Who is most at risk? Research shows the most suicide-vulnerable adolescents are those who:
- Have pre-existing mental health disorders—treated or untreated—including depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use
- Have displayed low resiliency during previous life or school challenges
- Reside in high COVID-19 hotspots
- Have a family member or friend who has died of COVID-19
The percent of teens at risk is staggering. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states that more than 40% of females and 20% of males in grades 9-12 reported they felt sad or hopeless almost every day over a two-week period, with 22% of females and 12% of males reporting suicidal thoughts. More than 13% of students age 12-17 reported at least one major depressive episode during the past year.
Researchers do not yet know the long-term effect of COVID-19 on teen suicide rates. They do know the risk is potentially high and that adults can help mitigate these tragic outcomes.
Regular Outreach to Teens is Critical
Whether or not an adolescent is being treated for a mental health disorder, this is a time when adults outside a teen’s household should be more socially connected than ever before. Even by phone or video conferencing, non-parent mentors can make a huge difference in a teen’s life by checking in with them once a week, letting them know you care. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, cousins, and other mentors can play a critical role in reducing serious emotional illness and suicide.
There are numerous ways to engage with young people that support their positive development. A mentor’s main job is to listen and support, not to tell a young person how to think or judge them in any way. A teen’s self-worth is based on feeling seen, heard, felt, and understood.
If you have not checked in for a while, use the coronavirus as a reason to reconnect, admitting that this is a tough time for everyone. At the end of the conversation, ask if you can connect again next week. The following information and guidelines can help you get started.
- Positive relationships are key for mental health and life-long happiness. Most importantly, let the young person know you value him/her and the relationship you share. As your conversations evolve, ask about the young person’s friends and family. How does this teen feel seen, heard, felt, and understood by those closest to them? What do they need from you?
- Talk about the challenges of COVID-19 and ask how it is affecting the young person’s life. Help them relate this challenging time to past life obstacles and how they overcame them. What are they learning about themselves? How can you support them?
- Curiosity is the cornerstone of life-long learning. Ask what piques a young person’s interests right now. Ask questions about those interests. Help him/her explore new ideas and ways of thinking about their interests. Do you have shared interests?
- Adolescence is a time youth explore and define their self-identities, an understanding of who they are relative to the world around them. Whenever possible, ask teens about meaning. Whether an experience was perceived as good or bad, encourage a teen to reflect on what they learned about themselves. Share what you are learning about yourself from them.
- Talk about values and current events. How does this young person feel about racial equity, climate change, and other social issues? Listen intently and do not judge. Even though you may not agree, attempt to understand and respect how this young person feels.
- What goals does this young person have right now? How has COVID-19 changed how he/she might accomplish their goals? How can you support their achievement by helping them become better goal-setters and problem-solvers?
- What creative outlets does this young person have? Encourage him/her to communicate and share new ideas and creative projects with others. Take a genuine interest in their creative endeavors. Can you be creative together?
- What is this young person doing for others? Research shows that empathy and compassion for others promotes civic-mindedness and citizenship. Share ideas for serving others and explore how you can support their activities.
If you are a parent or teacher who is worried about the mental health of a teenager, you should seek help for that child from a qualified mental health professional right away. Also consider how extended family and friends can be supportive to all teens in the ways outlined above. Regardless of a teen’s mental health history, regular check-ins from non-parent mentors who care about a child can be especially helpful during the difficult year(s) ahead—or anytime,
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Sher, L. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcaa202
Wasserman, I. M. (1992). The impact of epidemic, war, prohibition and media on suicide: United States, 1910–1920. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 22(2), 240–254.
Witt A, Ordóñez A, Martin A, Vitiello B, Fegert JM. (2020) Child and adolescent mental health service provision and research during the COVID-19 pandemic: challenges, opportunities, and a call for submissions. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-020-00324-8