Mental Health Experts Expect Delayed Emotional Impacts Of Pandemic For Teens

Listen Now
5min 05sec

Some schools have shifted to virtual events and even parades to honor 2020 grads, but some mental health providers in local health systems are concerned that the emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on high school seniors may be delayed.

KRCC’s Abigail Beckman spoke with Dr. George Brandt, a child and adolescent psychiatrist within Centura Health, about what this could mean in the coming months. 

Highlights from the interview:

Why might these feelings and mental health issues might be delayed and what could this look like?

Dr. George Brandt (GB): It's interesting. I think back to the Mount St. Helens Disorder article I read after Mount St. Helens blew up in Oregon. And what was the impact on people in the area? It was anxiety, depression, substance use. Those are the kind of the same behaviors that folks in difficult times often go to, but the prevalence was up. It was a more broad spread phenomena. How do you know what you've missed when you haven't graduated? You know, there's this aching in this missing and this lack of transition.

How soon are you expecting this to show up, with respect to the fact that each child is obviously different?

"Be open that this is an experience that your kids are having that is different than anyone else has ever had graduating high school. These are our COVID graduates."

GB: [In Oregon] the prevalence started increasing at about three months. Over the next year, there is a pretty prevalent increase in all those particular areas in the timeline. It's going to vary for every single individual. For some kids, they've been excited about this going away to college for six months. What happens in September when they're at home with their computer screen and not building this new social network at whatever university [they planned to go to]? It will be interesting to see how those transitions go when the structure of transition is not there.

Colorado's youth suicide rate is significantly higher than the national average. Are you concerned that this could be amplified by the pandemic?

GB: It's certainly something that you wonder about...what hits your vulnerable population? After the Marine Corps barracks were destroyed in Beirut and the bodies were brought back to Dover, Delaware the entire base would mobilize for the mortuary procedures. This stressor was absorbed by the whole community. The one thing that you could measure in Dover that was different over the next year was there was a spike in adolescent suicides. As the resources pull in, you worry about the vulnerable populations on the edge and adolescents are certainly one of them.

We've been hearing a lot of mention about increased family time during the pandemic as a positive, but in some situations that might not actually be helpful, right?

Dr. George Brandt is a child and adolescent psychiatrist within Centura Health.
Credit Courtesy of Centura Health
Dr. George Brandt is a child and adolescent psychiatrist within Centura Health.

GB: You made me think very quickly about the first lines in Anna Karenina — "All happy families are the same and all unhappy families are different, in their own way."

For example, if you're a senior from a family that is doing well, your car is covered with the soap -like decorations on cars, celebrating your graduation with streamers and all kinds of other things. There was a thought about you and your transition and your well-being. It's not the same as graduating, but they stopped and they listened and they noticed. What I'd worry about is for kids that have families that are so busy or so stressed at this time with economic stress or other things going on or addiction, can they reach out to the kids and touch them in a way that's important? Or does that kid have to reach outside their family, to their friends or other people or adults? They can be that support.

It's interesting talking to adolescents about social media. It is one of their power zones for connection, but it is striking that they see the limitations of it more now than ever.

What do you suggest concerned parents do if they feel their child might be dealing with this?

GB: I just want people to talk to their kids and reach out to their friends as well, because you may get a better idea what's going on with your kid from their best friend than you do from your own kids. Open doors to communication. Try to figure out what those little things are that you can do to make it special. What's that little bit of celebration? Be open that this is an experience that your kids are having that is different than anyone else has ever had graduating high school. These are our COVID graduates.

If you or someone you know is struggling, Colorado Crisis Services has a 24-hour support line at 1-800-493-8255.