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Mental health: Are the kids alright?

May 06, 2021 | Mental Health

A teenager wearing cornrows, a pink sweater and a mask sits on a staircase with her hands and chin on her knees while peers walk past.

For 18-year-old high school senior Joe Perry, the past year has been full of emotional ups and downs. As his school cycled through online and hybrid learning arrangements, social events were cancelled and friendships moved to social media exclusively.

“There’s a feeling of being almost more bonded with certain friends in the shared trauma of the pandemic, but feeling more distant at the same time,” he explains.

With disrupted routines, isolation and missed rituals, COVID-19 has been especially challenging for young people. Research shows that reduced social interactions during adolescence, such as a lack of face-to-face contact with peers, may have a substantial effect on teens’ brain and behavioral development. Health care claims among teens doubled in March and April of last year compared to 2019.

A teenage boy wearing a brimmed-hat, glasses, and a grey shirt smirks at the camera while holding a small snake in his hand.
Joe struggles with anxiety and depression. COVID-19 hasn’t helped.

“We are looking at dramatic increases in those adolescents with anxiety and depression,” explains Cara McNulty, DPA, President of Behavioral Health and EPA at Aetna. “They are feeling more isolated and alone. They feel such loss. Everything they know is disrupted. One in four 18 to 26-year-olds has thought about self-harm during this pandemic."

Joe says adjusting his thinking has helped. “I try not to look at this as missing out. I'm making myself think that my senior class not having a prom is something noble that I’m doing. If I wasn't looking at it that way, I would be so upset.”

Joe, who already struggled with anxiety and depression, started a mental health club at his school and participates in This Is My Brave, an organization committed to breaking the stigma around mental illness.

But many teens aren’t as proactive as Joe and it’s important for caregivers to also look for signs. Is your child angry, agitated, withdrawn? Have their eating or sleeping habits changed? “As parents, you’ve got to trust your gut, says Cara. “You can say, ‘Oh this is them being teenagers,’ but the reality is that the pandemic is profoundly hard for them.”

Cara McNulty, DPA, President of Behavioral Health and EPA at Aetna headshot
Cara McNulty, DPA, President of Behavioral Health and EPA at Aetna

To provide affordable, local care, CVS Health offers mental health tools and resources and is piloting a program to put licensed clinical social workers in CVS HealthHUB™ locations to address issues like anxiety, stress and depression. The services are currently for those 18 years and above, but they are exploring ways to extend them to younger teens.

“We need young people to feel that they're not alone,” Cara says. “They’re our future.”