Abuse, violence, other events related to poor mental health of teenagers during the COVID pandemic

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As new recommendations encourage providers to screen teens for anxiety, a study released Thursday found that a majority of high school students reported a potentially traumatic event during the COVID-19 pandemic that may have contributed to poor mental health and suicidal behavior .

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 3 in 4 students reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as emotional abuse or food insecurity, between January and June 2021, according to a study published in the agency Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Students who reported these experiences were also twice as likely to report having poor mental health and up to six times as likely to report suicidal behavior such as thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan, or attempting suicide in the past year compared to students who did not report recent ACEs.

“What we’re finding is actually consistent with what we’re seeing elsewhere in the literature, that all forms of abuse, as well as many ACEs, are associated with poor outcomes,” said lead author Dr. Kayla Anderson, an epidemiologist at the CDC Division of CDC violence prevention. “Emotional abuse may play a relatively larger role in adolescent mental health.”

Nearly 4,400 students nationwide were asked about physical or emotional abuse, parental job loss or food insecurity during the pandemic, or sexual abuse, physical dating violence or cyberbullying in the past 12 months. Emotional abuse has the strongest association with poor mental health and suicidal behavior.

The study comes days after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended Tuesday that providers screen all children and teens between the ages of 8 and 18 for anxiety, which Anderson says can be one of the many mental health outcomes of adverse childhood experiences.

“We see a lot of young people when they go back to school who have issues with social anxiety,” said Dr. Anisha Abraham, acting chief of the Adolescent and Young Adult Unit at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “It’s so important to identify these problems before they get worse so they can get support.”

While mental health outcomes may have worsened during the pandemic, health experts say these problems have been increasing since before COVID-19.

A recent article published in JAMA Pediatrics found that anxiety and depression among children ages 3 to 17 increased between 2016 and 2020, according to an analysis from the National Survey of Children’s Health.

Before the pandemic, anxiety increased by 27% from 2016 to 2019. By 2020, 5.6 million, or more than 9% of children, were diagnosed with anxiety problems.

“We’ve seen a lot more stress and anxiety related to social media, comparing ourselves and others,” said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology, neuropsychology and social work and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Despite these increases, the use of mental health care among children and adolescents did not increase over the five-year period. In 2020, only 80% of children who needed counseling or mental health services actually received care in the past year, down slightly from the 82% who received care in 2016.

Poor mental health can interfere with a child or teenager’s ability to focus in school and have normal friendships, Abraham said, and it’s important to identify the problem and intervene early before it affects their age.

“Over time, this can put them at risk for other chronic health conditions, such as substance use,” she said.

Experts urged parents to monitor their children and contact a healthcare provider if they suspect their child’s mental health may be at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are many forms of anxiety that can manifest in different ways:

  • Separation anxiety: You are very afraid when you are away from your parents
  • Phobias: An extreme fear of a particular thing or situation, such as dogs, insects, or going to the doctor
  • Social anxiety: You are very afraid of school and other places where there are people
  • General Anxiety: Very worried about the future and about bad things happening
  • Panic disorder: Recurrent episodes of sudden, unexpected, and intense fear that come with symptoms such as heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweating

The CDC says behaviors seen in children with depression may include:

  • You feel sad, hopeless or irritable a lot of the time
  • I don’t want to do or enjoy doing fun things
  • Show changes in eating, sleeping and energy patterns
  • I have a hard time paying attention
  • Feelings of worthlessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Exhibiting self-injury and self-destructive behavior

While screening for anxiety and depression can help providers intervene early, Anderson says another important strategy is strengthening social services to support families and prevent adverse childhood experiences.

“We know that we can prevent ACEs from occurring, and that would potentially do a lot to improve youth mental health,” she said.


Foster care, parental incarceration related to youth mental health problems


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Quote: Study: Abuse, Violence, Other Events Linked to Poor Mental Health in Teens During the COVID Pandemic (2022, October 14), Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022 -10-abuse-violence-events-linked-poor.html

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