April 26, 2022 – For Jennifer, a 16-year-old girl from South Carolina, the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a big deal.
An only child, she’s close to her parents and was happy to spend more time with them when they were all stuck at home. But when Jennifer (who asked that her real name not be used due to privacy concerns) started virtual high school in 2020, she began to have depression.
“She started high school from her bedroom at a brand-new school with no friends,” says her mom, Misty Simons. “And since then, it’s been really hard for her to make friends.” Even as society has reopened, Simons says her daughter is grappling with the emotional toll of the pandemic. Although she’s been in therapy for anxiety since the sixth grade, the isolation pushed her into depression. And that depression, she believes, “is 100% COVID.”
Jennifer’s situation is all too common as experts warn of an uptick in mental health challenges in teens across the board. It’s unclear whether the disruption of the pandemic is a blip on the radar or the early signs of a generation permanently stunted in its social and mental health development. Teens are particularly vulnerable to loneliness as peers become more important to their social development, says Karen Rudolph, PhD, a psychology researcher focused on adolescent mental health at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Teens are relying on their friends for support, advice, and more intimate relationships while, at the same time, exerting some independence from family, she says.
“You have teens who are really focused on gaining autonomy from the family and relying more on peers. [During the pandemic,] they were forced to do the exact opposite,” says Rudolph.
The pandemic interrupted this “important normative process,” she says, in part explaining why teens may have been more lonely than other age groups during lockdowns and virtual school.
They’re also more vulnerable to the emotion of boredom, says Rudolph, which means they were more likely to be severely disappointed when they couldn’t to normal activities that pleased them. According to the CDC, a third of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% said they “persistently felt sad or hopeless.” Jennifer, an accomplished vocalist, wasn’t able to perform for more than 2 years. Her vocal classes were put on hold, erasing both her creative outlet and an avenue for making friends, says S