UBC Vancouver: Study highlights pandemic impact on adolescent mental health

Adolescents who were in a good headspace before COVID-19 suffered a decline during the pandemic, whereas those with poor mental health fared better, according to new research.

The study, published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, fills an important gap in research examining adolescent mental health during the pandemic.

Dr. Yue Qian

“We found that adolescents with better than average mental health before the pandemic experienced an increase in their emotional and conduct problems, hyperactivity and problems interacting with their peers and friends, but a decrease in their prosocial tendencies — such as being caring and willing to share and help others — during the pandemic,” says UBC sociologist Dr. Yue Qian, who co-authored the study along with the lead researcher Dr. Yang Hu of Lancaster University.

In contrast, adolescents with lower than average mental health pre-pandemic experienced the opposite, possibly because they had more time at home with greater parental supervision and this prevented things like fighting or bullying.

The researchers analyzed data from a nationally-representative survey involving 886 adolescents in the U.K. — aged 10 to 16 — who were surveyed both before and during the pandemic.

While the study was conducted using U.K. data, the findings flag considerable disparities in the impact across social, demographic and economic groups that are applicable to Canada and the rest of the world.

The pandemic’s impact on adolescent mental health varied with parents’ socioeconomic positions.

For instance, young people with high-earning parents experienced a bigger reduction in conduct problems and a smaller increase in hyperactivity and problems interacting with their peers and friends, compared with those in low-income families.

It noted, young people from less well-off families experienced a much greater mental health decline during COVID than before.

Those living in one-parent households experienced a greater increase in problems interacting with peers and friends — as well as feeling lonely.

The presence of other children in the household also helped protect teenagers from the pandemic’s adverse impact on their emotional and social wellbeing.

The research also found, though adolescents are unlikely to contract COVID-19 or become severely ill as a result of catching the coronavirus, when a family member contracted COVID-19, it took toll on adolescents. The study suggests the linked self-isolation, social distancing and stigmas might make them susceptible to being bullied and socially marginalised.

The researchers say the findings underline the need to go beyond a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and adopt tailored mental health support for adolescents and targeted measures to mitigate inequalities in the mental health impact of the pandemic.

“Adolescents are at a critical stage of their lives and the detrimental impact of the pandemic on their mental health can undermine their immediate wellbeing and harm their long-term development,” says Dr. Hu. “It is clear from our findings that efforts should be made to mitigate the mental health impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents – an issue that has not yet been featured in key public health and policy conversations.”

“Our findings urge policymakers to mitigate disparities in the pandemic’s impact on adolescent mental health, interrogate how these disparities are rooted in pre-pandemic socioeconomic inequalities, and intervene in future inequalities that may arise,” says Dr. Qian.

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