How The Pandemic Affects Teen Mental Health & Addiction

Everyone can agree that this last year and a half has been a crazy roller coaster ride. I have 3 kids that are all spaced significantly apart so our struggles have been different for each kid. I have one in college, one in high school and one in elementary. Fortunately for my college kid he made the best of it in AZ (which has been open and thriving way before CA). My high school did his entire freshman year online and while that totally threw me for a loop but my son who is an introvert thrived from this. My elementary school kiddo did just fine as she is 10 and very adaptable.

But the one thing we saw a lot of is depression. Teenagers face a variety of stressors, from peer pressure to hormonal changes and increased responsibilities. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve endured even more stress than usual, due largely to isolation.

Stress can cause or worsen mental health problems like anxiety and depression. To cope, some teens turn to alcohol or other drugs. As a parent, you can help your child by learning the signs of poor mental health and facilitating honest, compassionate conversations. 

How The Pandemic Affects Teen Mental Health & Addiction

Since the world began social distancing, people of all ages have struggled with loneliness. However, teenagers tend to find isolation particularly difficult. That’s because socializing is an essential part of adolescent development. 

When they’re stuck at home, teens can’t fulfil their biological need to connect with peers and establish independence from their families. They also miss out on important events like birthday parties, proms, and graduations. 

Along with isolation, teens have also faced constant uncertainty about the virus and, in many cases, lost loved ones to it. These stressors pose a serious threat to a child’s mental health. 

Recently, a national poll found that 46% of teens have shown signs of a new or worsened mental health condition since the pandemic started in March 2020. 

Teen girls showed more anxiety than teen boys (36% vs. 19%), as well as more depression (31% vs. 18%). Both genders showed similar rates of poor sleep, withdrawal from family, and aggression. 

Some teens self-medicate poor mental health with drugs, especially alcohol and marijuana. 

While substance abuse may temporarily numb bad feelings, it poses a number of health risks, including addiction. Also called substance use disorder, addiction is a serious disease that can make your child feel unable to stop using drugs even if they want to. 

Signs Your Teen Has Addiction Or Another Mental Health Problem

When your teen is struggling with addiction or another mental health issue, it might not be obvious right away. That’s why it’s important to look for common signs, such as:

  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • sudden change in friends
  • loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • trouble concentrating or remembering
  • unusual changes in energy, such as frequent fatigue or hyperactivity 
  • unusual mood swings
  • irritability, anxiety, and/or paranoia 
  • lack of effort at school or work 
  • frequently borrowing or stealing money
  • changes in appetite, weight, or sleeping patterns
  • decline in personal hygiene 
  • strange smells on breath, body, or clothes

Some of these signs, such as mood swings and changes in friends, don’t always indicate a mental health problem. They’re sometimes just normal parts of teenagehood. Still, they suggest you should talk to your child about how they’re feeling.

Tips For Talking To Teens About Mental Health & Addiction

Many parents don’t know how to talk to their children about mental health. If you’re not sure where to begin, consider these tips. 

Plan A Time To Talk

Some teens feel uncomfortable discussing mental health. That’s why you should prepare them for the conversation. Tell them you just want to check in, and choose a specific time so they’re not caught off guard. When teens feel prepared for a discussion, they’re more likely to open up. 

Choose A Comfortable Environment

When planning your conversation, ask your child where they’d feel most comfortable. For instance, some teens might prefer the comfort of home, while others may want to go to a park, restaurant, or other public area (just remember to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines). 

Focus On Listening

To get the conversation started, you could share your own pandemic-related struggles along with coping strategies you’ve found helpful. 

However, your main goal is to learn how your child is feeling, so try to listen more than you talk. Ask how your teen’s been feeling and how you can best support them. Let them know they can be honest with you. 

Show Compassion

If your child says they’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or another mental health problem, tell them you’re sorry they’ve been struggling. 

Remind them that mental health struggles are normal, especially during a high-stress time like the pandemic, and that you’ll do anything you can to help them.

Similarly, if your child admits to substance abuse or addiction, don’t get angry. Anger will only prevent them from opening up to you. Instead, treat substance abuse like any other mental health problem. Demonstrate kindness and sympathy, and let them know you’re here to help. 

Discuss Solutions

Once you’ve learned about your teen’s struggles, talk about coping strategies. For example, you can encourage your child to:

  • journal
  • meditate
  • exercise
  • spend more time with friends while following COVID-19 safety guidelines
  • limit exposure to negative news 
  • create a relaxing bedtime routine to facilitate better sleep

If your child discusses or shows signs of addiction or another mental health problem, contact their doctor. They can screen for mental health disorders and connect you with treatment specialists. 

Make sure your child has one-on-one time with the doctor so they can discuss any issues they might have been too nervous to share with you.

Throughout the treatment process, continue to show compassion and remind your child that you’re always there for them. 

Amy Matton is a content writer for Ark Behavioral Health. She strives to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and other mental health conditions.

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