Quantifying a connection between the pandemic and adolescent mental health

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Recently, some of my adolescent clients have shared with me how happy they felt once they returned to school in-person.

First hearing this felt like a splash of cold water on my face: “Oh right! Being isolated at home and attending school through a computer is not normal!”

I’m surprised how quickly we all adapted to the “new normal” of this past year. I imagine anyone reading this can identify with at least occasionally feeling sad or depressed this past year due to our isolation caused by the pandemic.

Given how especially important friendships and socialization are for adolescents, the pandemic may have taken a particular toll on their mental health. We might assume this is true based on our own observations or common sense, but at CEBTOhio we always ask whether our assumptions are supported by the data.

A recent article published in the journal Pediatrics attempted to quantify changes in the rate of suicidal thoughts (“ideation”) and suicide attempts among adolescents during the pandemic. The authors reviewed data from the emergency department in a large metropolitan hospital in Texas, and found the rate of suicide ideation was significantly higher in March and July 2020, compared to the previous year.

Also, the number of suicide attempts reported by adolescents was higher in February, March, April and July 2020 compared to those same months in 2019. Data also showed that overall suicide ideation and attempts in both years were higher among females, and lower among Hispanic/Latinx youth.

Of note, overall emergency visits were lower during the pandemic. It’s worth considering the possibly that only those at high risk would chance visiting the emergency room during a pandemic – which could contribute to higher rates of suicide ideation and attempts among the total number of adolescents who received any kind of emergency treatment.

However, it is also noteworthy that the specific months when suicide ideation rates were higher – March and July – were also months in which COVID-19 cases were rising the fastest and lockdown rules were strictest in that area of Texas. It raises the suggestion that these circumstances had a direct negative affect on adolescents’ mental health.

As vaccines continue to be distributed, and we gradually decrease our isolation from one another, there is cause for hope. However, we are all still likely under great amounts of stress and, particularly for adolescents, may feel the effects of this past year long after conditions improve.

If you are the parent or caregiver of an adolescent, and you are worried about their mental health, our clinical director, Dr. Lucene Wisniewski, recently posted some great advice for how to talk to an adolescent who is having suicidal thoughts. Our practice also offers adherent Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) programming for adolescents, which is a therapy that can specifically help those with suicide thoughts or urges.

As always, if you or your teenager are struggling, please give us a call (216.544.1321) and we will be happy to help you get connected to professional resources.


About the Author:

Dean Malec, therapist and Director of Training at CEBTOhio, received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Cleveland State University. He trained in various university counseling settings during his doctoral education and completed his internship at Case Western Reserve University’s Health & Counseling Services. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Center for Evidence Based Treatment- Ohio, where he is supporting the development of an adherent DBT skills group exclusively for the young adult/college population.