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Mental Health Issues on the Rise for Young People Amidst the Pandemic

Sebastiaan Zuidweg, MA, LPC | Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist

A global pandemic, economic uncertainty, job loss, school closures, rising death rates, unknown long-term complications, social distancing, shelter in place, travel bans, statewide shutdowns, mutating virus, mask mandates… The list of alarming and unprecedented stressors can seem unending. Throw in a political divide, compounding environmental impacts of climate change, and social injustice issues, and you have a cacophony of noise, pressure, and stress that can seem unbearable.

To make matters more complicated, the prescribed behaviors meant to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 (social distancing, limited gatherings outside the household, etc.) actually inhibit the most optimal ways of managing our mental, emotional, and physical health.

Mental Health and the Pandemic

At Open Sky, we are seeing increased evidence of distress, suicidal ideation, and symptoms related to depression and anxiety in our young adult and adolescent populations. Healthcare providers and caretakers across the world are also seeing these increases.

The CDC recently published a report validating what many of us in mental healthcare have been observing: a significant increase in mental health issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 5,470 respondents who completed surveys during June of 2020, roughly 41% reported an adverse mental or behavioral health condition. Of that 41%…

  • 31% reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder
  • 26% reported symptoms of trauma related to the pandemic
  • 13% reported increased substance use as a maladaptive coping strategy
  • 11% reported having seriously considered suicide in the preceding 30 days

According to the report, these symptoms, coping mechanisms, and suicidal ideation were most commonly reported by young adults ages 18-24. Of the young adult respondents, 74.9% reported at least one of the above adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms. The report found that the prevalence of these symptoms decreased significantly with age.

Disrupted Development

The phases of adolescence and young adulthood are marked by unique developmental attributes, such as:

  • The pursuit of independence from the family unit
  • Future-oriented goal setting
  • Development of social connections and community
  • Inquiry into purpose and identity
  • Career and academic pathways

The stressors brought on by the pandemic not only disrupt some of these developmental pathways but actually have the potential to exacerbate existing mental health issues our young people may already face.

Sports and afterschool programs have been canceled; pro-social activities practically don’t exist. First-time college-bound young adults are missing out on the opportunity to experience independence and new opportunities to build community. Online classes and other virtual communications may further entrench one’s isolation and media overuse.

Breaking Down the Barriers to Wellness

Not all is lost! Even within the safety parameters set by the CDC and governmental leaders, there is much we can do to foster well-being at home. Here are four general guidelines to start with:

Practice gratitude and appreciation.

While you may be a good multitasker, the brain cannot multi-focus. This is a basic concept of how practicing gratitude and appreciation is so effective. By engaging in this practice, you are actually training your brain to focus on positive aspects of your life and of those around you. In a sense, it’s an active form of cognitive reframing and positive thinking. By focusing on the positive, you are breaking the negative thinking loop and interrupting symptoms of depression and anxiety, among other things. This is a simple practice that you can practice on your own and introduce to your family.

Some simple ideas to begin this practice:

  • Start off your day by writing or verbalizing to yourself what you are grateful for.
  • Take time before a meal for each family member to share one thing or person they are grateful for.
  • Express appreciation for someone else directly to that person. The act of expressing a gratitude to another person can be profound. You feel the benefit of giving it and the recipient benefits from receiving it.
Talk about it.

We are all in this together. Express, name, validate, and reflect on your experience. Give voice to your inner world and externalize what you are experiencing. This is incredibly important and works really well in conjunction with practicing gratitude and positive thinking. When we can name our emotional experience, we immediately step into the present moment. This takes a bit of skill and practice because most of us are unfamiliar with actively externalizing our emotions. Here are some tips:

  • Broaden your emotional vocabulary. You might find yourself limited to what we call primary emotions (anger, sadness, joy, fear, etc.). These are fairly simple to understand and typically express our reactions to external events. Secondary emotions are deeper and often more vulnerable feelings in response to primary emotions. For example, you might first identify the feeling of anger in relationship to a child or loved one, but when you take a deeper look, you discover that the anger is fueled by feeling resentful, disrespected or embarrassed. (Click here for a feelings resource wheel, which you can reference to help you deepen and better understand your emotional experience.) 
  • Take ownership of and accountability for your emotions. You are the only one responsible for your emotions. While the stress of our current situation might be what is causing you to react and experience your emotions, the emotions are yours, so own them. This is simply achieved by saying “I feel ____”. While this may seem obvious, many of us will instead say, “You’re making me feel _____” or “I feel like you’re ____.” In doing so, we project our emotional experiences onto others, making them responsible for how we feel. And remember, when someone shares their emotions with you, practice reflecting what you heard them say. This offers clarity and validation in a moment of vulnerability.

By identifying your emotions, broadening your emotional expression, and taking responsibility for your feelings, you will reduce the nervous system’s stress response and therefore be less reactive and controlled by your emotional experiences.

Practice mindfulness and self-awareness.

Numerous studies and accounts have documented the social, mental health, and physical health benefits of mindfulness and self-awareness.

Some known benefits to practicing mindfulness are:

  • Stress reduction
  • Reduced rumination
  • Decreased negative affect (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Less emotional reactivity/more effective emotion regulation
  • Increased focus
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Improved working memory

Meditation and breathing exercises are helpful mindfulness practices. You can also cultivate mindfulness in your daily life with activities like yoga, tai chi, and creating art. The main point is to center yourself and engage in the present moment with self-awareness. By doing so, you will build the capacity to separate your experience from your emotions and thoughts. You’ll also develop the ability to respond to stressors rather than react, and foster compassion for self and others.

Create connection.

Find opportunities to foster relationship and connection. When possible, try to watch movies and listen to music together with your son or daughter. Learn their world, but also respect their need for privacy as they are navigating independence in these unusual times. Get together safely with family or a friend or two for a hike or a gathering in the park, while following social distancing and mask-wearing protocols. Set up virtual meetings with friends and family for intentional time to connect. Find an online support group or try virtual therapy services.

Yes, digital media and screen time can become problematic, but when done in moderation and with intention, the benefits can be incredibly supportive.

When to Seek Professional Support

In some cases, the preexisting mental health issues your young person has been dealing with compounded by the global pandemic require significant and immediate intervention. This may be true for you if the severity of your child’s issues is increasing despite efforts to address and support their needs. An intervention, such as wilderness therapy may be an appropriate option.

Wilderness therapy is not only an incredibly effective therapeutic modality but also a great potential antidote to the risks and impacts that we are experiencing in today’s pandemic environment. In the haven of the outdoors, with COVID-19 health and hygiene precautions in place, students are greatly separated by the stressors of the pandemic, isolative behavior, substances, poor peer influence, stressful family dynamics, risk-taking behavior, and more. As a result, most students experience an immediate trend towards stability.

Removing these global and individual stressors allows the student to more fully engage in self-discovery, treatment, and the healing journey as a whole. Wilderness therapy can be an incredibly advantageous clinical setting for assessment, allowing students and families to get a clear, holistic, and diagnostic picture of what the student’s issues and strengths are. Wilderness therapy focuses heavily on building connection and fostering relationship. Emotional expression, assertive communication, distress tolerance, value-based decision making, and resilience are intentionally and naturally cultivated as students work through healthy stress and conflict with their tribe. With nature as a powerful co-therapist, wilderness therapy may just be the most grounded and humanistic treatment approach in today’s uncertain times.


For more support related to the pandemic, visit our other “COVID-19 Resources” blogs.

December 3rd, 2020

Sebastiaan Zuidweg, MA, LPC | Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist