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What is Driving the Increase in Adolescent Mental Health Issues?

Adolescent suicide, depression, and other mental health disorders were serious issues long before the onset of the global pandemic. Now, a year into the pandemic, experts are releasing statistics showing the drastic rise in mental health issues in all age groups, including adolescents.

A pre-publication, peer-reviewed report in the journal Pediatrics found significantly higher increases of adolescent suicide in the months “when COVID-related stressors and community responses were heightened, indicating that youth experienced elevated distress during these periods.” The authors based their findings on the comparison of positive suicide risk screens for January-July 2020 as compared to January-July 2019. 

Risk Factors that Increase Mental Health Issues in Adolescents 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates ten to twenty percent of adolescents worldwide struggle with mental health issues and warns, “The more risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on their mental health.” 

Adolescence is a time when young people are struggling to fit in, socially and emotionally. They are especially vulnerable to bullying, social ostracization, family dysfunction, problems in school, and trauma, any of which may trigger a mental health issue. 

Many of these factors are particularly relevant during the current COVID-19 crisis. A report by the Surgeon General on Mental Health entitled Risk Factors for Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders in Adolescents includes factors that teens have widely experienced since the onset of the pandemic.  

These include: 

  • Increased stress, fear, and anxiety 
  • Parental depression 
  • Negative family environment (may include parental substance abuse) 
  • Child mistreatment or abuse by parents 
  • Family conflict 
  • Loss of school, sport, church, community routine 
  • Loss of supportive relationships with friends, extended family members, mentors 

How is The Increase in Adolescent Mental Health Issues Linked to COVID-19? 

COVID-19 has given rise to what we now call the “new normal.” Unprecedented school closures, loss of face-to-face support systems, enforced isolation, disrupted routines, family problems and more have created an environment of stress, anxiety, and fear that has triggered or worsened adolescent mental health issues. 

Many studies have linked isolation and loneliness to an increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use and eating disorders, and other mental health problems. Isolation from their peers is especially difficult for adolescents and may increase suicide ideation in that population. 

Link Between Social Media Use and Increase in Adolescent Mental Health Issues 

While teens using social media to stay connected to their social communities can be positive, extensive use of social media also carries risks. Experts say risks increase when adolescents obsess about gaining “likes” on their posts and make comparisons between their own physical appearance or life circumstances and that of others. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide. 

Unfortunately, the anonymity of social media has made it easier for people to engage in cruel, hate-filled cyberbullying. Studies have found adolescents who experience cyberbullying are about twice as likely to engage in self-harm, including attempted suicide, as those who do not experience such bullying. Interestingly, bullies themselves are about 20 percent more likely to exhibit suicidal behaviors than non-bullies. 


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