COVID-19 Pandemic and Adolescent Mental Health

Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the most serious health crises that humanity and the United States, in particular, have faced during the last decades. Along with the healthcare system, the general population also was and, in some cases, still is directly involved in containing the pandemic through such measures as mask-wearing, social distancing, lockdowns, and others. However, with a heavy emphasis on the direct effects of Covid-19, there is a significant possibility to underestimate the pandemic’s indirect effects, including the ones these protective measures may have on people’s mental health. Moreover, with the majority of the infected being adults and the elderly, it may be easy to underestimate the pandemic’s impact on adolescents. While there is no arguing that the pandemic and related measures have negatively impacted the mental health of adolescents, it still leaves a legitimate question of what are the specific pandemic-related factors threatening it. The main factors are social isolation, disrupted routines, fears of the pandemic, and lack of mental health resources, further exacerbated by insufficient understanding of and possible neglect of adolescents as a vulnerable group.

I chose this question because I feel that the pandemic has harmed the mental health of my peers. As the virus spread across our country, the government decided to shut down cities and towns across America. With the spread of the virus, Americans were under strict guidelines to quarantine their homes. As a result, adolescents were unable to attend school and extracurricular activities, isolated in their homes, and unable to spend time with their friends. This isolation led to many adolescents developing depression, anxiety, fear, and an acute sense of loneliness (Magson et al. 45). Apart from involuntary isolation and the disruption of familiar practices, other factors are also likely to play and affect the adolescents’ mental health negatively. With this in mind, it would be useful to identify the most prominent risk factors for adolescent mental health and evaluate their relative severity to bring awareness to mental health issues in the adolescent population. While the direct impact of Covid-19 is not to be ignored, the pandemic’s effect on mental health is not something to underestimate or neglect either.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers have studied its direct and indirect effects, including those on the mental health of adolescents. As a result, scholarly publications over the last year and a half have amassed a considerable amount on this topic as related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the data comes from all over the world, and the authors do not necessarily follow the same frameworks and approaches, it makes sense to summarize these findings.

The first and most obvious risk factor is directly related to the pandemic and threatens adolescents’ mental health in isolation. Social distancing – or, as some researchers refer to it, physical distancing – has remained one of the foremost ways of limiting the spread of the virus since the pandemic began (Franic and Dodig-Curkovic 215; Witt et al.). For the same purpose, the nations affected by the pandemic introduced lockdowns that limited or altogether eliminated face-to-face interactions in many areas of human activity. Education often bore the brunt of these measures and, given its importance for adolescent socialization, lockdowns and distancing harmed the adolescents’ mental health. Magson et al. note that the inability to see one’s friends and acquaintances was the highest risk factor indicated in their study (49). In a similar vein, O’Sullivan et al. also identify social isolation and stress over home-schooling as factors that influence adolescents’ mental health negatively. Thus, the first important stressor that contributes to adolescents’ mental health problems during the Covid-19 pandemic is the feeling of isolation and loneliness caused by distancing and lockdowns.

Another closely related factor is the disruption of the familiar routines caused by the adaptation to the new conditions. Pandemic-related health and safety measures, including those outlined above and many others, have had and continue to have a profound impact on people’s daily lives. The lack of familiar routines that usually provide a source of psychological comfort may magnify the effects of the pandemic on adolescents’ mental health. Research supports this idea: for instance, O’Sullivan et al. point out that the inability to maintain habitual behavioral patterns is associated with an increase in adverse mental health conditions. On the other hand, Panchal et al. note that the ability to maintain a broad set of habitual routines during the periods of lockdown and quarantine leads to a decreased risk of mental health problems. All the observations above are based on the studies of adolescent populations specifically and, as such, apply to them in full force. Even though the correlation is not necessarily the same thing as causation, one may still conclude that routine disruption is another strong factor influencing the likelihood of mental health problems in adolescents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

One more factor identified in research and directly related to mental health problems in adolescents is the fear of Covid-19. Given the considerable magnitude of the pandemic, with dozens of millions of cases and hundreds of thousands dead in the United States alone, it is understandable that people would be concerned about contracting it. One may assume that the information received by adolescents, especially under the conditions of social isolation, plays a crucial role in these risks. Data provided by Panchal et al. supports this idea by pointing out that extensive and even excessive exposure to the Covid-19 content may result in a greater chance of adverse mental health conditions. Moreover, Franic and Dodig-Curkovic point out that the fears for one’s health and for that of the loved ones are both significant factors in developing adverse mental health conditions (215). Hence, there is no doubt that the fear of Covid-19 itself is an important factor potentially conducive to adverse mental health conditions in adolescents.

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Apart from the factors listed above, it is also necessary to discuss the availability and accessibility of mental health services. While the developments discussed in the previous paragraphs influence the likelihood of developing an adverse condition, the lack of relevant healthcare resources may worsen the situation by limiting the opportunities to address it. As mentioned above, the Covid-19 pandemic put an immense strain on healthcare systems all over the world, including the United States. With the healthcare system focused on fighting the direct effects of the pandemic, it is quite likely that it will not be capable of addressing other needs, such as mental health, to a full degree. Moreover, mental health resources for adolescents specifically may be underfunded and underdeveloped as compared to those for adults (Franic and Dodig-Curkovic 216). As a result, the healthcare system’s limited ability to address adverse medical conditions may be a moderating factor in its own right, especially as these conditions manifest at an increasing rate during the pandemic.

Analysis

While it is undoubtedly useful to be aware of the main pandemic-related factors contributing to the adverse development in adolescent mental health, research does not always focus on the adolescents’ specific perceptions thereof. It is common knowledge by this point that Covid-19 is more dangerous to adults and the elderly rather than to children and adolescents (Witt et al.). Considering that, some may conclude that the third factor identified above – namely, fear of Covid-19 – should not play such a significant role. However, this perception would underestimate the important fact that the fear in question is not necessarily for oneself. Adolescents may experience increased stress due to concerns for their elder relatives and acquaintances, especially if those work jobs that involve direct physical contact with other people. Mental health service providers should keep this consideration in mind when addressing Covid-related problems.

Apart from that, there is also a more general risk of underestimating the threat that the pandemic and related circumstances pose to adolescent mental health. Due to the focus on the virus and the fact that adolescents are not as vulnerable to it, it can be easy to assume that they are also less threatened by related psychological conditions. However, this perception would be directly contrary to the fact that adolescents constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of mental health issues. On the one hand, the chemical and physical changes occurring throughout adolescence can make this period a particularly distressing time psychologically (Magson et al. 45). Moreover, adolescents are more socially sensitive – and, in particular, assign greater importance to their peers, which are hard to maintain contact with due to the anti-pandemic measures (Magson et al. 45). Thus, adolescents are a more vulnerable population in terms of mental health than most, and health professionals should be aware of that. Adolescents should remember that it is both normal and necessary to seek help when experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other adverse mental health conditions.

Conclusion

As one can see, Covid-19 is a significant public health threat not only in terms of its direct impact but also due to the mental health challenges that it poses. Physical distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, home-schooling, and other related measures decrease the intensity of social contact and may lead to anxiety, depression, and other adverse conditions. Disruption of familiar routines, fear for oneself and others, and complicated access to the already limited mental health resources are also considered risk factors. Adolescents represent a particularly vulnerable demographic in this regard for several reasons. First of all, they constitute the majority of the population who had their routines and social contacts disrupted due to the overhaul of the educational process under the new conditions. Apart from that, adolescence is a period where people put increased emphasis on social ties with their peers, which were restricted due to the pandemic. Finally, neurochemical changes in the adolescent brain make this period a time of heightened emotional stress. Adolescents and healthcare providers alike should be aware of these risk factors and ready to seek and provide help.

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Works Cited

Franic, T., and Dodig-Curkovic, K. “Covid-19, Child and Adolescent Mental Health – Croatian (in)Experience.” Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, vol. 37, pp. 214-217.

Magson, N. R., et al. “Risk and Protective Factors for Prospective Changes in Adolescent Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 44-57.

O’Sullivan, K., et al. (2021). “A Qualitative Study of Child and Adolescent Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ireland.” International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health, vol. 18, article 1062.

Panchal. U., et al. “The impact of COVID-19 lockdown on child and adolescent mental health: Systematic review. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, ahead of print.

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Witt, A., et al. “Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service Provision and Research during the Covid‑19 Pandemic: Challenges, Opportunities, and a Call for Submissions.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, vol. 4, article 19.

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