Mental Health Issues for Adolescents Spiked During Pandemic

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May 24, 2023 -- During the COVID-19 pandemic, young people experienced spikes in mental health difficulties, with girls taking a harder hit, particularly adolescents developing eating disorders, according to a report this week in JAMA Network.

“The COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in daily life, social isolation, family economic burden, increased social media engagement, and reduced access to care, all of which might have negative associations with (mental health),” the authors wrote.

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Stanford University studied a commercial healthcare claims database. They looked at how many youths 6 to 18 had one of four mental illness diagnoses from January 2018 to March 2022. The four diagnoses were anxiety disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, and eating disorders.

In an average month, they found that 25.3% of participants were 6- to 12-year-old girls; 23.6% were 13- to 18-year-old girls; 26.5% were boys 6 to 12; and 24.5% were boys 13 to 18.

“When schools began to reopen after the first waves of the pandemic (October 2020 to March 2022), the prevalence of all four mental illnesses rose immediately among girls aged 13 to 18,” the University of Minnesota reported. “Diagnoses of all disorders other than depression increased faster during than before the pandemic. Notably, the prevalence of eating disorders more than doubled among adolescent girls after the pandemic began (from 0.26% in March 2020 to 0.56% in March 2022).”

The authors said the study shows the need "to identify the underlying factors associated with the increase in (mental health) diagnoses in female adolescents (eg, social isolation or accelerated reliance on social media), so that targeted mitigation strategies can be developed to reverse the alarming trend which has continued several years into the COVID-19 pandemic."

The authors also pointed out that the study included only youths who were commercially insured. Also, recorded diagnoses of mental health issues might not reflect the actual status of youths in the study.