Psychological health

Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)

Teens are increasingly feeling anxious and depressed more than a few years ago, and unless this is taken care of at the right time and in the right way, it will only get worse.

Helping teens fight anxiety and depression

“Cliff was born angry,” said the mother, laughing. We were sitting in my office, the morning sun was pouring through the windows. The admission interview had just begun. Her 13-year-old son, Cliff, sat next to her and added, “Maybe it’s true, but then again who wouldn’t get angry when a doctor hits you in the butt?” Funny kid, I said to myself. He has a quick wit.

As the conversation continued, the mother described how Cliff had become increasingly irritable, short-tempered, and withdrawn over the past few months.

About twenty minutes into the hour I asked to speak to Cliff alone. Teens often open their doors as soon as the parents leave the room, and with a little encouragement that happened with Cliff, too.

I asked him about his freshman year of high school, what he liked the most, and how he dealt with some common challenges. The year had started well. Cliff made many new friends, did well academically, and enjoyed the feeling of “growing up”.

As the conversation turned to how things have changed with COVID19, it became even more lively. The change to online learning was a huge shift. “At first I thought it’s cool, that’s cool, there are no classes to sleep in and play video games all day.” “I’ve been thinking dude, I can do this for years!”

As it turned out, he quickly realized that there were many unexpected downsides to this “new normal” for education. Cliff missed the structure provided by being in class. He began to feel isolated from friends, and was too frustrated to have his high school football season canceled.

Now that summer shelter orders have stretched, Cliff is beginning to think his life may never return to normal again. This was light years away from the first year experience he had imagined.

Adding to these stressors came another, more devastating blow: His father was laid off. Soon, financial tensions swept the family, and heated quarrels between parents became a daily occurrence. Cliff often fell asleep to the sound of his mother and father exchanging angry accusations.

Like a passenger plane suddenly changed course, Cliff’s mental state and embarked on a steady glide path shifted into a state of anxiety and depression.

His mother had brought him to therapy out of his anger, but there was a lot going on than just being an irritable teenager. His deep disappointments and fears about the future had sowed the seeds of chronic distress.

Cliff was depressed and anxious.

Often these two problems arise in tandem. When they do, it is the anxiety that makes its appearance first. If a person does not manage to deal with their fears, feelings of helplessness may take root. This, in turn, becomes a breeding ground for depression that gets stronger over time.

These same processes occurred in Cliff. The COVID shutdown and all that it ultimately entails have caused concern. When his efforts to grapple with these fears persistently failed, he brought relief, frustration, anger, and depression into the picture. The energetic, optimistic, and somewhat goofy teenager his parents knew was no longer to be found.

Many teenagers suffer from depression and anxiety

An alarming number of teens suffer from anxiety and depression, and over the past 15 years, the problem has only worsened. A Pew Research paper reported that in 2007, 8% of teens had one major depressive episode in the past year. Ten years later, the number had risen to 13 percent (an increase of 2 million teens)

Another study by Pew Research Group in 2018 showed that the majority of teens consider anxiety and depression a major problem among their peers.

In May of 2020, a Harris survey contacted 1,500 teens: 7 out of 10 teens reported experiencing mental health in some way.

More than half of the respondents in the sample expressed anxiety, 43% said they suffered from depression, and 45% indicated that they experienced severe stress.

Depressed and anxious teens

Even more worrying, however, is the study released in April of 2020 by Professor Jean Twenge which showed that between 2011 and 2019 the number of teenage girls with depression doubled. The number of teens with depression increased by nearly 75%.

Depressed and anxious teens

Rates of self-harm and suicide also increased (as expected with increased depression). Dr. Twenge found that heavy technology use and diminished face-to-face interaction were closely related to these trends.

From the time the COVID lockdown began, with school closings later, teens have had less face-to-face interaction with their peers and very likely (given how much they are at home now) more time on social media.

Before we move forward, it would be good for us to look closely at the impact of the COVID lockdowns on teens.

Related: Why are millennials so anxious and unhappy?

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