Mental health declined during the pandemic: How can students rebound?

Aug. 23, 2021, 8:02 p.m.

For many young adults and teens, mental health has suffered since March 2020, when the world shut down. Mental health insurance claims for U.S. teens roughly doubled early in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One cause might be feeling “less close to friends and family as a result of isolation for long periods of time,” according to a study published in May. Virtual learning and pandemic-related frustrations have also been linked to diminished mental health. 

Psychiatry and behavioral sciences clinical professor Elias Aboujaoude M.D. ’98, M.A. ’98 wrote in an email that during the pandemic, several healthy outlets for coping with worsening mental health were suddenly off-limits or more complicated. Restricted access to typical support systems and mental health treatment can also make things worse, he added.

Aboujaoude wrote that personalities, socioeconomic situations and stage-of-life confusions were some factors that could have affected teens’ responses to the pandemic, noting there was “great variability” in how teens and young adults handled the experience.

The pandemic has also exacerbated mental health struggles for those who were already struggling. Psychiatry and behavioral sciences clinical assistant professor Steven Sust, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry, said that kids from underprivileged families often view school as a safe space, and losing access to that environment would have taken a toll.

“It was a disruption to the daily routine that was happening before,” Sust said.

“Social isolation goes against our biology, and the people who are the most vulnerable are teenagers and young adults,” Antonio Hardan, director of the Child Psychiatry Division at Stanford, said. He added that lacking optimal socialization during this time could have effects we should watch out for in the future.

How can young people get back on track after over a year of unprecedented times?

Sust said students should reflect on the ways their lives have been changed. Aboujaoude recommends personal reflection, mutual support and in some cases psychotherapy.

“Expect awkwardness, confusion and ambivalence, and accept the lack of established etiquette and protocol,” Aboujaoude wrote. “Be kind to yourselves and each other as we all navigate these uncharted waters.”

Hardan also notes that people should try to maintain some of the habits they found beneficial during quarantine, such as going on walks and spending more time with family, as sources of comfort. 

In addition, as the world starts to shift back towards in-person lifestyles, people should be cognizant of not only how they themselves are doing, but also how other community members are feeling, according to Sust.

“While this is a difficult time, I think it’s important to also recognize among each other that, although you were sort of physically isolated, you weren’t necessarily going through it alone,” Sust added. “When you do get to a point where you are seeing each other again, I think it’s important to really try to open those spaces for some resumption of the old normal.”

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