COVID-19 is presenting an unprecedented mental health battle for teens

Teen Mental Health
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Katie-Jane Klembarsky and Grace Brummond were both juniors at Waconia High School when the COVID-19 pandemic began to turn Minnesota upside down in late February and early March.

They, along with the rest of their classmates, watched as the senior class ahead of them missed out on the finishing touches of their high school careers. Now, Klembarsky and Brummond are in the final year of their high school endeavor, which is also plagued by pandemic unknowns.

"I truly believe it's worse for this year's seniors," Klembarsky said. "I know that since I am a high school senior I am biased, but last year's seniors did get a good two-thirds of their senior year and experiences."

Teens and adolescents have been put in the middle a tug-of-war when it comes to COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions.

As politicians grapple with the public over "what's best" for the health and well being of individuals, decisions to reduce the pandemic's impact on high-risk individuals and healthcare systems have meant that children and teens are left learning from home, not playing sports, and missing out on experiences had by so many before them.

"We kind of had our experiences in the fall, but it was definitely different and nothing was what we expected it to be," Klembarsky said. "Now we're headed into a new year, the spring, and into our college decisions. It's very difficult to be a senior this year and last year."

Often times students are told simply to accept what is known as the "new normal."

"I think a lot of us didn't want to accept that this was our new normal and that was the full experience that we were going to get," Brummond said. "We were hesitant to take that in and let it happen."

The changes have renewed the call to pay attention to the mental health in teens and children.

Concerns about teen mental health have consistently been used to debate the effects of Minnesota's COVID-19 restrictions. While both sides use mental health a positioning tool, there remains a legitimate, steadfast concern and interest in supporting those mental health challenges teens are facing in 2020.

"Our teens are struggling," said Jason Clopton, who hosts the Teen Whisperer podcast, focused on teen mental health and wellbeing. "They're going through the pandemic along with us as adults, but they're also going through a huge shift in terms of how education looks, having that social connection with their friends, and engaging with society as they used to."

Clopton, who is also a psychotherapist intern at LeVan Counseling and Consultant Services in Brooklyn Park, says more and more teens are revealing their mental health struggles.

"We're finding a lot of teens isolating and developing symptoms of depression and anxiety because they don't know what's next," said Clopton.

As is true in adults, remains true for teens, especially when it comes to feeling like there is no control over any part of the decisions being made.

"We can't control whether or not the state gets shutdown," Clopton said. "We can't control so many different things and it's plaguing our minds."

Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by the National 4-H Council found that out of 1,500 teens surveyed, 70 percent admitted to struggling with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According the the World Health Organization, an estimated 10-20% of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions, yet these remain underdiagnosed and undertreated.

"If parents or teachers notice someone is complaining about headaches, stomach aches, appetite changes, or you notice that their mood is getting low, or that they aren't interested in things like they used to be, that's a telling sign that something is going on."

The WHO reports half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated.

"If you are a teen and you realize that you are feeling this extra layer of sadness, or you're isolating yourself and don't want to do the things you used to do, let's educate ourselves on what might be going on," said Clopton.

Parents, guardians, and teachers are left wondering how to start the discussion with teens and children about mental health.

"I want people to look at these moments as opportunities," Clopton said. "When we find these unique opportunities, let's work to educate ourselves as well."

Teens are reminded to never be afraid of taking that first step towards addressing any problems they might be dealing with.

"Don't be afraid to talk to ask for help or to talk to someone, whether it's a friend or family member. I always encourage teens to find that person, or group of individuals that may have some shared experiences, but that you also feel comfortable and safe with," he added. "If it's out of your hands, it deserves freedom from your mind. Don't be afraid of it. We can't keep shying away from discussions about our feelings."

More about teen mental health can be found here.