Adolescent mental health issues are on the rise

Written by on February 9, 2021

Adolescent mental health issues are on the rise

By Chloe Nouvelle

February 9, 2021

Photo by Pixabay

Treating adolescents with mental health disorders is complicated, and the pandemic has made it harder.

Listen to the story.

Local counselors say more kids need mental health support but school closures and social isolation make it difficult for school therapists to connect with them. 

Crystal Jones says her 11-year-old son Julian is a lot of fun. She calls him her precious baby boy. He is also challenging to parent. 

“He’ll start crying and screaming and following me around the house. He’ll grab and touch me, try to block me from getting around him. He’ll hold my face for me to look at him, for me to understand what he’s trying to explain to me. And this could go on for hours,” Jones says.

Julian has ADHD and something known as intermittent explosive disorder. So, these hours-long meltdowns are common. And lots of things can trigger them – like hitting a bump with schoolwork. Jones says she holds him during his episodes  She tells him “mommy understands.” But it doesn’t calm him.

“It ends when he’s tired. And that could be when he curled up on the sofa and fell asleep from the screaming and crying or maybe in the bed or something like that,” Jones says.

Julian used to get in-person therapy from Pinebrook Family Answers, a local mental health provider. The pandemic turned a lot of those sessions into telehealth visits. Jones says at first, she didn’t think that would work. But she says it’s turned out to be just as good for them.

But Julian may be one of the fortunate ones, a kid in the Valley who actually gets appointments with a therapist.  

Leslie Ten Broeck runs clinical services at Pinebrook. She says this region is seeing a “vast increase” in the number of people needing help. Adolescents and adults.

“Every clinic now has a waiting list for services. We can usually get people in on a triage basis, but I just met with the outpatient team this morning and we’re really struggling to provide openings,” Ten Broeck says. 

Another factor is the economic fallout from the pandemic including people losing jobs and health insurance. Ten Broeck says that’s making it harder for people to pay for the care their kids need. 

And on top of that, early in the pandemic, a lot of schools closed and went remote. That meant young people lost some of their usual, free, mental health supports. 

Dr. Tami Benton, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explained some children were left without anything. That had consequences. 

“A lot of those kids weren’t struggling per se, but they had a lot more support in their environment. So once the school closed, and once they couldn’t see their friends anymore, and once they couldn’t see the therapist, either, the kids who were complaining about anxiety, or had mild anxiety, or mild depressive symptoms, they got worse,” Benton says. 

The pandemic moved many private providers into the virtual space, she says. That meant kids didn’t get in-person, eye-to-eye care. She says that pushed teens who needed more significant treatment into the ER.

“Social isolation for young people is really, really very hard because most of the responsibilities of development really are about establishing relationships with other people,”Benton says.  

Robin Carmody, also from Pinebrook, is seeing this firsthand. She’s a therapist at Liberty High School in Bethlehem. She says the hallways are quiet. The school is on a hybrid schedule so kids learn in a building, together, two days a week. The rest is online. And in the cafeteria, teens aren’t allowed to sit close to each other. 

It’s sad, Carmody says. Grades and attendance at Liberty have both gone down. And at the same time, older students have taken on more responsibility at home. 

“Often I’m doing a session with a student online, and they may have a sibling on their lap, or they’re cooking dinner,” she says. 

Carmody is seeing more teens dealing with isolation and anxiety. Without as much face-to-face time, she has fewer chances to intervene when kids are stressed.

“One of the greatest things about my job is that we often can deal with problems as they’re happening. If a student is arguing with the teacher or they just broke up with their boyfriend, it looks so big when it’s happening. So, if you can grab that student and talk to them while this is happening, and let them learn coping skills, how to work with that. It’s magic, but now, that’s kind of not happening as often,” she says.

Carmody is seeing a rise in teen mental health complaints. But there’s another challenge connected to the pandemic, as well.

Guy Weissinger is an assistant professor at Villanova University

“It’s not the fault of any one [person], it’s just that we’ve changed the context. Everything’s gone to Zoom and telehealth,” Weissinger says.

He says his ongoing research has found “much lower rates” of screening for mental health issues in adolescents at primary care offices and schools. 

Before the pandemic, a teen could just fill out a questionnaire and check a box to show they were struggling. Weissinger says “saying it” on a video call from home with the volume blaring may be more difficult. 

“Rather than handing a teen an iPad where they can kind of fill out some questionnaires about how they’ve been feeling. A lot of the time now, it’s someone who’s talking to them while they’re sitting in their own living room. People can overhear and it’s a really different context,” Weissinger says.

It’s unclear when kids will be able to go back to school five days a week but when they do, it may help with some of these issues.

But it’s not just the kids who aren’t alright. Pinebrook’s Leslie Ten Broeck says local mental health providers are also “maxed out” and seeking therapy for themselves. 

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