Pandemic exacerbates mental health challenges among youth

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A student searches for mental health resources. COVID-19 has negatively affected many students’ mental health, pushing them to look for help. (Photo illustration by Hannah McKinlay)

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released an advisory announcing a surge in mental health challenges among youth because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Released in December 2021, the advisory said the mental health of young people in the U.S. has been on the decline for more than a decade. The pandemic intensified this trend, evidenced by the doubling of symptoms of anxiety and depression during the last two years, Murthy said.

“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced,” Murthy said. 

Psychologist Jonathan Cox, a clinical associate professor at BYU Counseling and Psychological Services, witnessed the pandemic’s impact on mental health while working with his clients. Cox specifically saw an uptick in loneliness because of the isolation social distancing and quarantining can often cause. 

Cox said the pandemic hindered many typical coping mechanisms such as social connection or going to the gym. “It has this kind of double whammy, where it amplifies symptoms and also gets in the way of coping, making it even worse,” he said.

This “double whammy” particularly hit BYU student Claire Mecham when her younger sister was diagnosed with cancer in the beginning of 2021. Mecham was quarantined in Provo when it happened, unable to visit her sister and family in Arizona for fear of bringing sickness to them and worsening her sister’s condition. 

“Not being able to be with people that I want to be with was a big part of the pandemic for me,” Mecham said. “It’s been hard mentally, feeling incapable and out of control.”

Mecham describes herself as a major extrovert who thrives off being around people and talking, so social isolation was far from an ideal environment for her to deal with this emotional burden properly.

However, Mecham said she found comfort and maintained hope by making goals and writing in her journal. 

BYU student Abby Westerby experienced depression and anxiety while quarantined on her mission. She spoke about the danger of negative coping mechanisms, such as getting lost in social media or trying to ignore emotional challenges, as well as the importance of making sure people prioritize their mental health.

“Mental health is just as important as wearing masks and getting vaccinated,” Westerby said.

CAPS clinical associate professor David Erekson emphasized the importance of seeking professional help. He said students do not have to manage their mental health issues alone. 

“Even if you’re just noticing this is difficult to manage, that means you need help,” he said. “You don’t have to power through, grit your teeth on your own.”

Cox said CAPS has adapted to growing mental health concerns by incorporating quick-care appointments, which are one-time consultations students can usually get within a week.

For students seeking regular therapy sessions, CAPS has 30 licensed psychologists as well as case managers who can set them up with therapists off campus.

CAPS and other local psychologists are encouraging telehealth visits to avoid COVID-19 transmissions. Some might worry meeting online detracts from the success of therapy, but Erekson and other BYU faculty conducted research which suggests otherwise.

“We looked at how people were recovering before the pandemic, when it was all in person, and then how people were recovering after it was all remote, and people did just as well,” Erekson said.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory was not just a declaration of crisis, but also a call to action: “If we seize this moment and lead with inclusion, kindness and respect, we can lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient and more fulfilled nation,” Murthy said.

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