Signs your teen may be struggling with the pandemic

The pandemic is hitting teens and children hard, experts say – so what are the signs to watch out for?

The ongoing uncertainty, stress and fear created by the Covid-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on all of us – but experts say many children and teens are having an especially tough time.

University of Melbourne youth mental health Professor Patrick McGorry says people aged 12 to 25 are seeking the most help in hospital emergency departments for mental health-related issues.

“This is the age group that already had the biggest vulnerability to mental health before the pandemic,” the executive director of Orygen Youth Health says.

“Now they’ve been massively disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, in their education, their casual employment – those things have been very hard hit.

 “Their normal source of support and avenues for maintaining their mental health – their friends, their sport, and other recreational activities – have been taken away from them, so there’s no safety net.”

What does the research say about Covid-19 and mental health?

A Murdoch Children’s Research Institute study found two in five young people experienced mental health problems during the pandemic last year.

MCRI researcher Ali Fogarty says four in five teenagers reported increased school-related stress, while three in four reported feeling overwhelmed.

“We also found other risk factors for mental health, depression and anxiety, including family stress, difficult family relationships, and a sense of feeling lonely as well,” Ali says.

“These are results dating back to Victoria’s second lockdown – we know some of those effects will be similar with these reoccurring lockdowns that we’re seeing.”

Signs young people are struggling with the pandemic

Ali says feeling sad, irritable or tired are a common response to stressors such as the pandemic and lockdowns.

But she says if these persist for a longer than a couple of weeks, it could be a sign of something more serious.

Ali says red flags include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty making a decision
  • Feeling more sad, tearful or angry than usual
  • Losing interest in things they usually enjoy, such as connecting with friends or exercising

How to support young people through the pandemic

Improve connections

According to Ali’s research, young people who enjoyed more quality family time were less likely to report depression and anxiety symptoms.

“We found other protective factors were connecting with friends in the ways that they could – so phone calls, social media were all really important,” Ali says.

Establish a routine

“Encouraging young people to keep up their routine and making sure they were getting outside, exercising and connecting with their friends also helped,” Ali says.

Support and seek help

Starting a conversation with a young person about your concerns can be tricky, but Ali says there are good online resources such as Headspace or Kids Helpline that provide guidance for parents on how to talk to their kids and encourage them to seek help.

Headspace suggests ways to get back on track such as:

  • Think about fun things your family would like to do once restrictions ease
  • Write out a plan to help get motivated
  • Start with something that seems easier, before moving on to difficult things

When to call in the professionals

While parents want to help their children through challenging times, Prof McGorry says it’s important they seek professional help.

“If your child had Covid-19 you wouldn’t try to manage it yourself, you’d look to health services for support,” Prof McGorry says. “Mental ill health also needs to be managed professionally.”

While many mental health services are stretched, Ali recommends seeking advice from your local GP to get started.

“They can provide a mental health care plan and provide advice for you or your young person,” Ali says.

More tips on helping kids through the Covid-19 pandemic:

Written by Claire Burke.