Simple steps to improve young people’s mental health

By now we know that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a particular toll on the mental health of young people. In December, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory on protecting youth mental health, calling on individuals, families, organizations, governments and others to take action.

Within households, we can make some easy and immediate options available, experts say. A recent UW and Harvard University study surveyed more than 200 Seattle-area children and teens before the pandemic and then during the initial lockdown phase as well as several months later. The study found that adequate sleep, a daily routine and limited screen time could help.

The spread of COVID-19, economic hardships and social isolation, especially during the first several months of the pandemic, fomented stress, anxiety and depression among children and teens alike, the study found. Top stressors for kids were exposure to seemingly frightening media coverage of the coronavirus; the extensive, and passive, use of screens—whether on phones, TVs or computers; and disrupted routines and sleep patterns.

“The biggest thing that we hope parents take from the study is that while youth mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, there are some simple steps that families can take that may have a positive impact,” says one of the authors, Maya Rosen, a former UW postdoctoral researcher now at Harvard University.

The study involved two groups of Seattle-area children ages 7 to 10 and teens ages 13 to 15 who were already participating in research on youth mental health and behavior prior to the pandemic. Psychology Professor Liliana Lengua started following families when the children were 3 years old. Her work provided the team with a baseline with which to evaluate the effects of different phases of the pandemic. About half of participants were female, and about one-third were youth of color.

The research team asked about issues related to the young person’s physical environment, burdens on family health and finances and social and academic stresses. The answers also helped show whether and how young people were internalizing stress—developing anxiety or depression—or externalizing it, which would manifest in changes in behavior.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented some unique experiences for youth and their families, says Lengua, who directs the Center for Child and Family Well-Being. “Research from past disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, and also from studying stressful things that happen for families, such as divorce, have highlighted the factors that contribute to youth mental health in these contexts,” she adds. “But the pandemic included unique experiences, as well. Stay-home orders resulted in families having a lot of time at home. Youth didn’t have opportunities connect with peers and other adults for social support.” While families reported they appreciated the additional time together, the youth reported feeling isolated and lonely. “Having healthy daily routines and adequate sleep were particularly important in this context,” Lengua says.

Exposure to news of the pandemic affected young people differently. Researchers noted, however, the importance of having honest, age-appropriate conversations with children and teens about crisis events such as the pandemic, answering their questions, and limiting exposure to sensationalized coverage.

“There was striking individual variation in how children and teens responded to the pandemic. We wanted to get under the hood of this variation to try to understand the vulnerabilities and resilience of different children. We also wanted to provide helpful tips to parents and teens,” says study co-author Andrew Meltzoff, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the UW.

“There may be other pandemics in the future, and we think that some of the discoveries we made this time around can help parents and teens,” Meltzoff said. “There is no book about ‘how to cope with a worldwide pandemic,’ but science can provide helpful information that people can use now, even while we continue to gather more data.”