Adolescents Are Impacted by COVID-19 Too

By Faith Daniel

The COVID-19 virus has impacted our lives in a myriad of ways, from the way we interact with each another to the landscape of health care today.

Adolescents in particular are facing a uniquely painful battle with COVID-19. According to Dr. Nadia Scott, director of adolescent medicine at SBH Health System, there has been an uptick in patients reporting sleep issues, higher levels of anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness, and disordered eating.

There has been “a particular increase in binge eating, emotional eating, and weight gain,” says Dr. Scott. “These stressful times have made eating difficult. It is a way to express anxiety and is a mechanism that takes control.”

It’s forced teens to be resilient in a time of uncertainty and their mental health has taken a toll. According to the Centers for Disease Control, mental health-related emergency room visits for adolescents ages 12 – 17 years old increased by approximately 31 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Jenna Cooper, LCSW, director of the child and adolescent program at SBH Behavioral Health Services, has seen an increase in anxiety and depression among her patients during this time. The back-and-forth between sometimes learning in-person and sometimes learning virtually has not gone smoothly for many of her patients.

In fact, many children over the past year have spent more time engaged with their video games and social media platforms than they have in school or interacting directly with their peers and returning to life as we once knew it will have its challenges. “There is this desire to reengage among people of all ages, but there is also fear and anxiety,” she says. “Going back to school will be difficult for many of them.”

Cooper says she’s also seeing, among both children and adults, what therapists refer to as “languishing” related to COVID-19. This is not necessarily depression or anxiety. Rather, according to a recent article in The New York Times, “languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” Whereas with depression, you might not want to get out of bed, with languishing you’re just going through the motions of life.

Due to quarantine, says Dr. Scott, teens have experienced a disruption in their psychosocial development. During adolescence, teens develop social skills, empathy and a sense of identity, all of which happen through interacting with peers.

With strict masking protocols, social distancing rules in effect, and statewide school closures, safe in-person social activities have been significantly limited and teens rely on the virtual world for social interactions and even their healthcare through telemedicine.

“Social media does give folks an outlet, but kids’ self-image has been affected. They are only looking at images that have filters and are photo shopped,” she says. “A huge aspect of adolescence is comparing yourself and being self-aware of image.”

The world is now operating virtually, creating more opportunity for teens to socialize, learn in creative ways and explore interests, but she says it is important for their caretakers to monitor the content they are viewing. In the era of COVID-19, teens must be physically distant, not socially.

Dr. Scott finds that telemedicine for teens dramatically changes the dynamic of their physician visits. “As an adolescent medicine doctor you have two patients, the parent and the minor. Some adolescent patients can’t speak freely about how they are feeling in their own households. For some, it isn’t safe to talk about their mental state. Many don’t have their own rooms for privacy and prefer to wait for an in-person visit.” Doctors rely on those few minutes alone with their patients to ask pressing questions about their health, especially when it relates to sexual activity, birth control, romantic relationships and mental health. To make matters even more challenging, not all teens have access to a stable internet, making a telemedicine visit cumbersome.

In a recent study conducted nationally by the Pew Research Center, one in four teens live in households with an annual income of less than $30,000 and lack access to a computer, with Black and Latinx families representing the majority of teens in this category. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the injustices that these families have endured, making coping with a pandemic even more difficult.

While there is hope for a better tomorrow with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, it won’t cure the inequities that ignited the devastating impact COVID-19 had on people of color, especially those in low-income areas.