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Children, adolescents struggle with mental health during pandemic

An adult holds a worried young boy's hands; both are wearing masks.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have surged among children and teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study of more than four million children shows that’s true for kids who have fallen ill with COVID-19, as well as those who haven’t. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with policy analyst Kristina West of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about her findings.

For kids who get diagnosed with COVID-19 what are some of the possible mental health effects?

We were lucky that we had access to data from more than 2 million kids with COVID diagnosis. What we found was that there was an association between diagnosis and mental health needs… For example, we saw among adolescents, up to 17 year old, there is high risk—higher likelihood—of depression and anxiety…. And the other interesting thing was that—as much as we saw this association between kids with COVID diagnosis, we actually saw really high rates among those that they did not have COVID diagnosis as well, of mental health disorders. This all pointed to the fact that pandemic has really had detrimental effects to our children.

Okay, so higher rates of depression, anxiety, things like that, even among kids who didn’t actually get sick with COVID.

Yes, and also trauma and stress disorders, such as acute stress diagnosis, adjustment disorders, we saw those as well.

Can you tell me what you think is going on there? Why do we see this increase in mental health needs?

The effects of the pandemic are really complex. I think for children, the social isolation was obviously very impactful, the fact they could not be with their peers, that they could not be in school, in their normal social environment. But I think the factors that also impact children’s wellbeing was the overall stress that their parents experienced. For example, the income loss, food insecurity, all these factors impacted the wellbeing of families and children directly.

This is such heartbreaking topic, we know that parents are balancing the social and mental wellbeing of their children against their physical health, keeping them safe from COVID, do you have advice you can share with parents?

I think parents are really facing very tough choices right now, in terms of balancing the two. For some of our families, for example, that have immuno-compromised members or even children, that’s even a harder choice…. As far as we know, based on the evidence, still, masking and vaccination is our first response in addressing this pandemic. And then secondly, I think parents—what parents can do is try to be present with their kids, and answer their questions, because kids are feeling the overall anxiety and wondering themselves what this all means…. one of the important things that we know from prior research is that, for building resilience among kids, is having a meaningful supportive relationship with an adult. Engaging in activities that are important for children, putting aside time to spend with them, might be one of the most important things that parents can do.

Kristina West, thank so for speaking with me.  

Thank you.

More information:

CDC’s pandemic guidance for schools

CDC’s mental health guidance for parents and caregivers

More on child and adolescent mental health during the COVID pandemic

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.