A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness and suicide attempts among adolescent females.
Catherine Zorn had struggled through her youth with mental health until discovering a passion for dance that helped suicidal thoughts and panic attacks largely disappear. “Then the pandemic ripped away her lifeline. In March 2020, her dance school shut down.” So begins an article by Rose Wong and Kailyn Rhone for the Tampa Bay Times, about how COVID-19 has brought a rise in teen suicide attempts, particularly among girls, in Florida, and elsewhere in the United States.
It is a situation mirrored in other countries around the world, two years since the pandemic sparked lockdowns and school closures, taking away the normal means of socialization for millions of young people at a formative age of their development. And evidence points to a disproportionate impact on teenage girls.
Domingo Marchena of Barcelona-based La Vanguardia reported last month on a shockingly high jump in suicides and attempted suicides among adolescent girls in Spain. In the region of Catalonia, around Barcelona, professionals have witnessed the disproportionate impact of COVID and confinement on female teenagers and young women. Suicide attempts by girls between 12 and 18 years old have shot up by 195%, compared to the previous year. Suicide attempts by boys of the same age bracket have increased by 10%.
No prior history of depression
Montserrat Pàmias, head of child psychiatry at a hospital complex in the Catalan city of Sabadell, says that the findings show "among adolescents we see suicide attempts without previously having depression or other mental illness."
According to Pàmias, a strategy to reduce the number must begin in schools. “It is a priority to talk about emotional management and the management of discomfort.”
Typical sources of emotional distress include those related to school, friends, family and intimate relationships. Added to this, during the pandemic many families have dealt with other factors such as economic strain due to job loss, illness or fears around it, or even death and grief.
In the Spanish case, suicide represents the second leading cause of death among young people, with a person committing suicide every two hours in 2020.
Officials and researchers around the world are trying to understand why teenage girls in particular have struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic. Dr. Rebeca Gracia, from the mental health team at Parc Taulí Adolescent Day Hospital in Barcelona, says young females are more prone to anxiety and mood swings, which have been exacerbated by the lockdowns during the pandemic.
Managing emotions can be particularly difficult during puberty.
Volkan Olmez / Unsplash
Rise in eating disorders
Yasmin Haque, UNICEF Representative in India, told Ideas for India, that there is some evidence of girls' mental health having been impacted differently than boys', “not only in terms of access to online platforms and education resources but also in sharing the burden of household work.” Despite not having exact numbers, Haque said it could be safely deduced that girls’ mental health and overall psychological well-being “have had a tougher time because of increased incidences of gender-based violence and burden of care.”
In Israel, a new study by Maccabi Health and the KI Institute, found similar jumps in mental illness among teens since the beginning of COVID-19, with findings "based on the medical records of over 200,000 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17, (that)showed that the biggest rise was found among girls," The Jerusalem Post reports last week. "There has been a 55% rise in eating disorders, a 38% rise in diagnoses of depression and a 33% rise in anxiety disorders."
They're affected by potential risks they pose for their grandparents.
In the Berlin-based daily Die Welt, Ulf Poschardt reflects on those lost lives among German youth due to the dramatic rise in the number of suicide attempts among children during the pandemic, blaming the fear that has been spread by health officials and through media channels.
“The endless apocalyptic discourse and the use of worst-case scenarios particularly affected the younger generation,” writes Poschardt, citing a recent study by the Essen University Hospital that suggests the number of children who ended up in intensive care units after attempting suicide has quadrupled.
According to Poschardt, school closings, the rhetoric about children representing potential risks for their grandparents and the negligent handling of studies on the risk of infection for children, have all led to the government taking decisions that have added to the mental health load for young people.
Role of the virtual world
In the United States, a study released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national average of weekly visits to emergency rooms for suspected suicide attempts among those aged 12 to 17 jumped nearly 40% compared to two years before.
The CDC says suicide attempts by boys rose 3.7% but jumped nearly 51% for girls. According to Wong, in Tampa Bay, BayCare Health Systems said 4 out of 5 of its emergency psychiatric patients last winter were teenage girls.
The study listed certain possible causes for this increase such as the disruption of daily life with pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, barriers to mental health treatment, an increase in substance abuse, and anxiety about the health and economic state of the family at home.
Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of South Florida, told The Tampa Bay Times that the pandemic stripped teens of important mental health anchors like sports, peer hangouts, and interactions with trusted teachers, coaches or counselors.
You’ll see people happy, and I’m like, ‘Why can’t I be happy like them?'
Due to being stuck at home, the lack of their usual hobbies and virtual learning, teenagers spent even more time on social media. Kaliebe highlights that negative effects of social media are particularly acute among girls, who “tend to spend more time comparing themselves with friends and strangers online”.
In the case of Catherine, she spent nearly 10 hours a day on TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat during that pandemic summer. She referred to how it made her feel worse to see constant highlights of others’ lives. “You’ll see people happy, and I’m like, ‘Why can’t I be happy like them?’” Catherine told the Tampa Bay Times. She eventually was hospitalized for four days, though is now doing better — in part because her dance studio has reopened.
Managing emotions can be particularly difficult during puberty. As Dr. Leigh Ruth, Child and adolescent psychiatrist at USF, told the Florida newspaper. “Hormonal changes intensify self-loathing and other social anxieties.”
The United States National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) said in a statement: “Just as we have taken steps to protect our physical health throughout the pandemic, we must also take steps to protect our mental and emotional health."
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