Since schools shut down in March, Clark County School District’s early-warning system, which monitors students’ mental health episodes, has sent more than 3,100 alerts to district officials, according to a recent story in The New York Times. That has prompted CCSD to hasten the return of in-person learning for some elementary school grades.
Those mental health issues are part of a nationwide trend that’s worrying mental health experts such as Dr. Lisa Durette, program director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at UNLV. “There was a study through the University of Texas that pulled data for teens that were presenting to the emergency room for suicide attempt. And the data from the end of the last quarter of 2020, compared to last quarter of 2019, showed about a twofold increase in the rate of adolescents coming to the ER for suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts,” she says.
The increase is can be attributed of the stresses of the pandemic, according to Michael Spindler, a consultant at Never Give Up Youth Healing Center, a residential treatment facility in Amargosa Valley. “In the last eight months, our referrals have doubled,” he says. “I call this the other pandemic—a mental health pandemic that is a direct result of COVID-19.”
Social isolation has been one of the biggest factors in the uptick in depression and anxiety among adolescents since schools closed in the spring, according to experts. “The isolation is [taking] their normal adolescence,” Durette says. “Think about all the other things that come with the academics of school—sports, clubs, organizations—that’s your identity. This is not something they’re able to access right now.”
Sasha DeCania, chief clinical officer at Ignite Teen Treatment, a teen residential rehab program, agrees, noting the critical period in adolescent development when teens seek autonomy from their parents and approval from their friends. Being stuck at home with parents is the absolute opposite of the normal order of things, and this exacts a psychological toll. “Teenagers’ primary task is to be social; [they] understand who they are by their relationships and connections with others, away from their families. That’s a primary thing before you launch into adulthood,” she says.
So how can parents support their children during this extraordinarily challenging time? One of the most important things they can do is simply validate their teens’ feelings, and give them space to mourn the losses they feel—from missing friends to missing out on touchstones like school dances and field trips. It might be tempting to tell them to just buck up, but teens need to know that the anxiety they’re feeling is entirely warranted.
“Parents need to provide children with an opportunity in the home to talk about what they’re feeling, that it’s OK to feel anxious and scared and apprehensive,” Spindler says. “They’re not bad feelings. Reassure them that yes, we’re going through a very tough time now, adults, too. But we’re gonna get through it. That’s the key. Give your child permission to feel what they’re feeling. Don’t brush it off. Don’t minimize it. Because what they’re feeling is real. Acknowledge it.”
As for the pressure of academics, DeCania advises parents to take it easy—both on themselves and their teens. She cautions putting too much stock on alarmist stories about kids falling behind in school. Sure, distance learning isn’t equivalent to in-person instruction, but it doesn’t mean kids’ futures—collegiate or otherwise—are doomed.
“Framing it that all these kids are going to suffer and never get caught up is the biggest enemy,” DeCania says. “We need to focus on the present and not on the future. … This is a time to be safe. This is a time to be comforting, to be loving and to be understanding. Put it in perspective—these are circumstances that come every 100 years.”
One silver lining to emerge from this pandemic is the newfound emphasis on prioritizing adolescents’ mental health, the experts say. There are more help outlets available now than ever before, especially with teletherapy and telemedicine becoming more prevalent.
“There are resources that are abundant in Clark County and throughout the state, for kids and teens, many of which are low-cost and even no cost, like the mobile crisis response team, through the Department of Child and Family Services,” Durette says.
Above all, parents can support their teens by simply being present and paying attention, focusing on building relationships and talking to them. And DeCania says you can’t underestimate teens’ need for physical proximity and affection in this time of social isolation. They might not say it out loud, but sometimes they really just need that hug from Mom or Dad.
“Make an effort to sit down to dinner together to make sure there’s time for affection,” DeCania says. “Can you watch a movie together, play a video game together? Who needs more screen time, but if you can do those things and make space for physical contact? Absolutely.”