Over the last two years, there has been a significant increase in the number of teenagers and young adolescents reaching out for therapy. Even before 2020, teenage mental health was already emerging as a concern; with the pandemic, the problem is turning into a crisis that needs immediate attention.
For the experience of a pandemic this severe has impacted how adolescents view the world and themselves. Children as young as 10 are reporting insomnia, difficulty sleeping and consistent anxiety. Apart from these, depression, cyberbullying, eating disorders and self-harm are some of the other concerns that teenagers reach out on directly in therapy or that are brought up by parents.
Loneliness, a feeling of exclusion, anxiety and depression are the top concerns teenagers are talking about in urban set-ups. In the case of small towns and rural areas, research and surveys are needed to assess the reality of teenagers there.
A 12-year-old girl tells me: “Everybody in my class talks about anxiety and panic attacks. I don’t know if all teenagers experience it. My mum said it’s a phase and it will go away. A boy in my class told me that I am too sensitive and that’s why I feel anxious. I don’t know what to do and I worry that I will always remain unhappy.”
Most teenagers feel helpless and hopeless and wonder if their concerns can be managed or dealt with. This is true particularly if they don’t have parents, teachers or friends who understand the intensity of their distress and offer hope, in terms of understanding their feelings or helping them schedule an appointment with either a school counsellor or a mental health professional.
Over the last two years, adults too have struggled with uncertainty. And this environment of anxiety and gloom has impacted our children. We need to remind ourselves that children would anyway be affected during a global crisis like a pandemic. Their narrative of hope, optimism, and what the future entails for them, will be impacted. As adults, we need to offer attentive presence, stability and empathy to teenagers who are going through a phase of challenging developmental changes. Yet, as a 38-year-old client told me, “If I don’t feel hope myself, how do I instil hope in my child?”
If you feel you are struggling as an adult, reach out to a mental health professional. Sometimes, in those small acts you are modelling for your children and indicating that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
School counsellors and therapists across the globe feel that increased exposure to mobile phones and social media has changed the way children interact with each other, negatively affecting their self-esteem. Teenagers very often use the internet to source information about what they are feeling and sometimes end up with information which may not be factually correct or fails to offer clarity on the intensity of their concerns. Most importantly, it doesn’t tell them that mental health concerns can be managed, that support is available, and that reaching out for help is a sign of strength.
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Sometimes, parental attitudes that stem from the belief that “children have simple lives and are overreacting” prevents a lot of children from sharing their mental distress. Misreading teenagers’ anxiety and pain as angst and believing that such feelings would pass of their own accord, is a concern. Maybe we all need to pay a little bit more attention and ask ourselves what can be done to ease their distress.
Having conversations with teenagers about internet etiquette, cyberbullying and other abusive or exclusionary behaviour online or in person is vital. Otherwise, teenagers may not even recognise that this is problematic behaviour and that they have agency and choice when it comes to dealing with it.
Whether it’s peer support programmes at school, having counsellors in every school, community initiatives or sharing circles for teenagers, the work that lies in front of us is enormous. We owe our children a world that feels safe, one where they feel seen and heard.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.