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Teens, COVID, and Coping: Eye-Opening Report, What We Can Do

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it is continuing to cause is harming the mental health of many of our teens. How do we know this? Teens are telling us. Here’s a look at a recent survey, what it means, and what we can do going forward to help teens thrive in spite of the pandemic. After all, while we don’t have a lot of control over the COVID-19 situation, we do have control over our perspective and our actions.

Report: What Teens Said About COVID, Their Mental Health, How They’re Coping

They [teens] are increasingly worried. They are concerned that they will not catch up, that relationships will fail, and that they will fall behind as a generation academically and socially which will affect their futures. This is a very stressful time for a generation of young people who are already confronting tremendous challenges.”  — Laura Ross, National School Counselor of the Year

Wanting to understand exactly how teens are doing with this continuing pandemic and school disruption, Wellbeings.org, part of the WETA Mental Health Initiative, and PBS News Hour Student Reporting Labs had DKC Analytics conduct a survey of teens ages 16-19. Between October 2-4, a random sampling of 1,000 high school juniors and seniors as well as college freshmen and sophomores completed a survey about their mental health in the midst of this pandemic. Here’s what they’re telling us, and we need to listen. (See the full survey report here.)

  • 50 percent of the teens surveyed report that their mental health has worsened because of the pandemic.
  • 64.1% are experiencing loneliness
  • 61.7% are worried/have anxiety
  • 54.4% have had depression symptoms
  • 41.1% are angry
  • 27.9 % rate their mental health as their top concern
  • 26.9% state that their top concern is their ability to meet their educational goals
  • 23.0% feel that their top concern is their physical health
  • 44.1% say that they are either somewhat (29.8%) or very (14.3%) unsatisfied with their life

Surveys like this are important because they help us listen and understand. They’re great when they drive action–what we do about the results is vital and meaningful.

After the survey data was compiled, Wellbeings.org and PBS News Hour Student Reporting Labs hosted a live event to help teens be heard and to drive positive action. Adolescent psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, national school counselor of the year Laura Ross, and high school students Bridget Adu-Wadier and Irving Oliver (with video documentary supplements from teens across the country) engaged in a frank and purposeful conversation about teen mental health. The discussion was empowering because it acknowledged the problems created by this COVID-19 pandemic and it shed practical light on just how to move forward. Many teens aren’t experiencing optimum mental health right now, but this conversation made it clear that this doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. Catch the replay here.

Let’s explore what all this means and what we can do about it.

Teen Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health: Turning Data Into Meaningful Action

Comments from students like, “I feel like I’m trapped in my own mind,” and shared frustrations around the lack of boundaries between home and school, distractions and disruptions to learning, and the need for social support shed light on what we can do to help.

Emerging themes from teens themselves indicate that all hope is not lost. We can help them meet their needs.

Connection to Adults is vital.

Adults can make a difference in teens’ lives. When asked who or what makes a positive difference for their daily mental health, teens responded:

  • 61.4 % selected family
  • 52.6 % selected pets
  • 25.5% selected teachers or coaches (this number might be lower this year than in other years because of reduced contact with these significant adults)
  • 11.6 % selected faith leaders

Teens need opportunities to connect meaningfully adults (family and non-family mentors). Let’s work together to maintain existing relationships and build new ones.

In the conversation, teens and adult experts alike mentioned reaching out via texts, group chats, video calls, and meeting outside in person. The challenge for all of us now is to individually find ways to connect. What little things can we all do on a regular basis to show our support? What about:

  • Connecting with one or more teens in your neighborhood. Offer homework help, a listening ear, and some lighthearted fun like leaving handwritten jokes or inspirational notes on their doorstep)
  • Letting a high school or college kid help you with something you need (maybe you’re bored and tired of your hobbies — ask them about topics they’re interested in and let them recommend books or websites to you)
  • If schools near you meet in person, leave occasional notes on kids’ windshields in the parking lots. Include inspirational messages, a tip that you use to get through tough times, or a silly drawing.

Connection to Peers Remains Key

In adolescence, peers become increasingly important. Teens gradually shift away from parents and toward friends (parents, they still need you, but in different ways so don’t give up!). When responding to the question about who has had a positive impact on their daily mental health, 68.8 percent indicated that their friends play a key part in their sense of wellbeing.

Unfortunately, with COVID restrictions, it’s hard for many kids to spend time with each other. We can help kids be creative in connecting with each other while remaining safe. In the conversation, counselor Ross emphasized the importance of giving teens safe, structured spaces to interact.

Texting and video chatting is important, and we should allow and encourage kids to do this, but they need in-person connections, too. Allowing them to meet outside while remaining distant can help them feel the void created by screens. Letting your teens have a friend over can be incredibly beneficial to their mental health, too. You can of course sanitize and require distancing and mask-wearing, and they’ll get to have in-person connections.

Help Them Develop Coping Skills

Coping skills are small actions done regularly to help us keep moving forward despite even big challenges like this ongoing pandemic. Some suggestions made by teens themselves in the livestreamed conversation include:

  • Noticing when you’re overwhelmed and taking a break
  • Having an “escape plan” — a list of little things you enjoy doing — and using it regularly
  • Finding hobbies to stay active and avoid lying on your bed staring at the ceiling
  • Trying new things, even things you didn’t like in the past, for a change of pace
  • Watching entertaining videos
  • Listening to music to affect your mood
  • Connecting with others

Let’s Make Dessert

In the online conversation, Dr. Damour referred for the current teen experience as “all vegetables, no dessert.” Together, we can make them some dessert and help them make their own.

It’s the little things that count–small actions and interactions done consistently make a big difference in how teens feel about themselves and this situation that’s beyond their control. We don’t have to solve the big problem. We just need to be there to listen, support, and help them know that they can survive and thrive.

Parents, Equip Your Kids with the Skills they Need to Be Mentally Healthy and Face Challenges

Consider finding online mental health courses for kids and teens that empower them to face their obstacles and experience wellbeing through life’s ups and downs–even big ones like the COVID-19 pandemic.

I created a mental health course for the online education company Lernsys. It’s presented for kids ages 8-12, but the content and skills are useful for the whole family–even teens and adults. It’s research-based and includes information and techniques from cognitive behavior therapy, positive psychology, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness. Find it here.

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