As a licensed counselor at Thrive Behavioral Health, Jeff Huston talks daily with kids who are struggling with depression and anxiety—brought on or compounded by the isolation they’ve experienced throughout the pandemic.
“I have some teens who say, ‘I just want to go hug a friend. I just want to have a high five with a teammate.’ And they’re not able to do that, and so they’re grieving that,” he says. “This is that time in their lives when they are identifying who they are and working on independence, and the pandemic has really interrupted that.”
Many teens have also felt the isolation of distance learning—managing much of their own time and academics without in-person access to teachers and with significantly less interaction with their peers. In addition, many of their memorable high school events and activities, like homecoming, athletics and other extracurriculars, have been cancelled or delayed.
Kids in crisis
A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in June 2020 found that 26% of teens and young adults ages 18-24 reported having serious suicidal thoughts in the past 30 days, while mental health visits to emergency rooms increased 31% among kids ages 12-17 in 2020, compared to the previous year.
Prior to the pandemic, there was a shortage of quality mental health services in Oregon and across the country. With the increased need for those services, many families seeking support are on waitlists.
What can parents do?
There are things parents can do to support their child while they await an appointment to see a licensed counselor. Jeff encourages parents to start by creating structure for their teen or tween with activities that their child can count on each day, including family time.
“Not just family time that’s chore-based. It needs to be some form of board games, a creative project or, taking the pets out for a walk—some opportunity that allows you and your child to talk. That way, teens who are waiting to have counseling services are not just holed up in their room isolating or jumping onto social media, which can be supportive at times but can also negatively impact their self-esteem.”
Pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw says kids do better during times of emotional distress if they have a daily routine and focus on habits that will support a positive mindset, including eating nutritious foods, being physically active and getting quality sleep.
“Teens need sleep, and it’s been shown that really does help with mental health problems. Unfortunately, if you are having mental health problems, your sleep is not good, so that’s something that you could talk about with your teen’s doctor,” she says.
Calming negative thoughts
Teens and adolescents can become consumed by “internal chatter,” which are thoughts that cause them to worry about things that might happen or things they can’t control. Encourage your kids to get outside of their heads by listening to music, exercising, talking with a trusted friend, spending time with their pets or doing something creative.
Jeff says, “We can’t change the past. We can’t predict the future. So, look at the present and come up with some form of distraction to change the thoughts.”
If your teen needs support while on a waitlist for counseling services, reach out to a school counselor or talk with your pediatrician.