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Effects of COVID-19 on Adolescent and Young Adult Depression and Suicidality

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, depression and suicidality were significant mental health concerns for youth ages 14-24. Nearly 1 in 5 of individuals this age experience a major depressive episode, meaning their depression symptoms are severe enough to cause impairment in day-to-day functioning. Even more alarming, by 2019 suicide had become the 2nd leading cause of death among this age group. There are many reasons for the high rates of depression and suicidality among adolescents and young adults. This is a developmental period characterized by high stress as youth manage new demands including school performance, peer and romantic relationships, and family conflict. It is also a developmental period in which skills for managing stress, regulating emotions, and communicating effectively with others are still “under construction”.

Given all the normal developmental angst of this age, how have teens and young adults been coping with the added stress of COVID-19 so far?

Preliminary data suggests: not well. We surveyed over 500 adolescents and young adults ages 14-24 across the U.S. to assess depression symptoms and suicidal thoughts in the first month of the COVID pandemic. The results are striking.

Nearly 7 in 10 youth report clinically significant depression symptoms and 1 in 7 report their suicidal thoughts have increased since social distancing was initiated.

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Why is this?

Adolescents and young adults are social beings who highly value peer relationships, and developmentally they are becoming more independent from their parents. Yet in the matter of a few weeks, teens and young adults switched from in-person to remote learning; abruptly stopped having daily social contact with peers; started spending hours upon hours at home with their parents; and lost important activities and milestones such as spring sports seasons, school end-of-year rituals, prom, and graduation. Social distancing is very difficult for most people, but it seems to be especially so for adolescents and young adults.

What can we do?

If you are concerned about your teen or young adult’s mental health, check out our resource pages for depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and motivation. We also have a team of trained clinicians available to work with adolescents and young adults.

This study was conducted by my research team at the Seattle Pacific University, Department of Clinical Psychology. Read the Executive Summary.

May 18, 2020
Amy Mezulis, PhD

Amy Mezulis, PhD

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development.  She is currently on the faculty at Seattle Pacific University, where she chairs the Clinical Psychology PhD program.

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