Teens are increasingly feeling more anxious and depressed now than a few years back, and unless this is taken care of at the right time and in the right way, it will only get worse.
Helping Teens Fight Back Against Anxiety And Depression
“Cliff was born angry,” the mom said to me with a laugh. We were sitting in my office, the morning sun streaming through the windows. The intake interview had just started. Her 13-year-old son, Cliff, sat next to her and added “That’s probably true, but then again who wouldn’t be angry when you just got swatted on the butt by some doctor?” Funny kid, I thought 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As the conversation continued the mother described how Cliff had become increasingly irritable, short tempered and withdrawn over the past few months.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 with Cliff alone. Teens will often open up once parents leave the room, and with a little encouragement that happened with Cliff as well.
I asked about his first year of high school, what he liked best, and how he had dealt with some of the common challenges. The year had started out well. Cliff made several new friends, did well academically, and enjoyed feeling more ‘grown up.’
When the conversation turned to how things changed with COVID19, however, he became more animated. Changing to online learning was a major shift. “At first I thought cool, this is rad, no classes just sleeping in and playing video games all day” he exclaimed. “I was thinking dude, I could do this for years!”
As it turned out, he quickly realized there were many unexpected downsides to this ‘new normal’ of schooling. Cliff missed the structure that being in class had provided. He began to feel isolated from friends, and was very disappointed that the high school soccer season had been cancelled.
Now that the shelter in place orders had extended into the summer, Cliff began to think that his life might never be normal again. This was light years away from the freshman year experience he had imagined.
Added to these stressors came another and more devastating blow: his father was laid off from work. Financial tensions quickly swept through the family, and heated arguments between the parents became a daily occurrence. Cliff would often fall asleep to the sound of his mother and father exchanging angry accusations.
Like an airliner that suddenly changes course, Cliff’s mental state shifted and began a steady downward glide path into a state of anxiety and depression.
His mother had brought him to therapy for his anger, but there was a lot more going on than just being an irritable adolescent. His profound disappointments, and his fears about the future, had planted the seeds of chronic distress.
Cliff was both depressed and anxious.
These two problems frequently arise in tandem. When they do, it is anxiety that makes its appearance first. If the person is unsuccessful in dealing with his or her fears, a sense of helplessness may take root. This, in turn, becomes fertile ground for depression, which then grows stronger over time.
These same processes had taken place in Cliff. The COVID shutdown and all that entailed had eventually given rise to anxiety. When his efforts to deal with these fears persistently failed to bring relief, frustration, anger and depression entered the picture. The energetic, optimistic, and somewhat goofy adolescent his parents had known could no longer be found.
Many Teens Struggle With Depression And Anxiety
An alarming number of teens struggle with anxiety and depression, and over the past 15 years, the problem has 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 increased to 13 percent (an increase of 2 million teenagers)
Another study by the Pew Research group in 2018 showed that the majority of teens view both anxiety and depression as a major issue among their peers
In May of 2020 a Harris Poll contacted 1,500 teens: 7 of every 10 teenagers reported struggling with mental health in some fashion.
Over half of those in the sample confided that they had struggled with anxiety, 43% said they had been depressed, and 45% noted that they had experienced severe stress.
More alarming, however, is a study that came out in April of 2020 by Professor Jean Twenge showing that between 2011 and 2019 the number of teen girls with depression had doubled. The number of depressed teenage boys had increased by nearly 75%.
Self-harm and suicide rates had also increased (as would be expected with increases in depression). Dr. Twenge found that heavy technology use and diminished face-to-face interaction were highly correlated with these trends.
From the time the COVID lockdowns began, with the subsequent shuttering of schools, teens have had less face-to-face interaction with peers and very likely (given how much they are now home) more time on social media.
Before moving on, it would be good for us to look at the impact of COVID shutdowns on teens a little more closely.