Pandemic policies have led to a mental health ‘emergency’ for kids and teens. How will we fix it?

An outbreak is sweeping the nation. And for young people, it’s far deadlier than the COVID pandemic. What’s worse: many of the policies implemented in the name of ‘safety’ have contributed to the crisis.



Mental illness can be somewhat invisible. It’s more difficult to see and diagnose than a broken bone or skin cancer. But since the pandemic began, the number of teens attempting to end their lives has skyrocketed, making this mental health crisis impossible to ignore. In fact, it’s even reminiscent of the famous case of Kitty Genovese, who was killed in broad daylight as every onlooker, convinced someone else would step in, chose to look away. Will our policymakers do the same?


At first glance, the answer is no. In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the mental health crisis facing young people – and how it’s become an urgent problem due to the “pandemic’s unprecedented impacts.” But the report fails to address how COVID-related mitigation policies have contributed to this epidemic of mental health challenges.


The crisis is clear. For example, more than 140,000 children in the US have grappled with the loss of a loved one due to COVID. Other children have lost access to social services – and in some cases, reduced in-person interactions have even allowed child abuse to go unnoticed. And the ubiquitous social isolation has gotten worse due to extended at-home schooling coupled with virtual – or canceled – extracurricular activities.

Also according to the advisory:

  • Suicide attempts by teenage girls rose 51% in 2021, compared to the same time period in 2019.

  • Mental health-related emergency room visits increased 24% for children ages 5-11, and 31% for ages 12-17, compared to 2019.

  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic. 25% of all young people were found to experience depression, and 20% have experienced anxiety.

The pandemic exacerbated an already fragile scenario. Pre-2020, the youth mental health crisis had already become a concern, due in part to the growing influence of smartphones and social media and the social isolation they can bring. Numerous studies have linked this technology to mental distress, self-injury and attempted suicide. Since 2010, suicide has been a leading cause of death for 10-19 year-olds, second only to accidental deaths.



How does the government hope to solve this problem?


More than half of the Surgeon General’s 53-page report is dedicated to potential solutions. Many may help on some level, such as training educators to better recognize warning signs, and closer monitoring of social media’s impact on children.


However, not one of these suggestions directly addresses the impact of COVID-related policies. If the youth mental health crisis is a true “national emergency,” shouldn’t our government agencies address the root cause? Collectively, these solutions will likely be far less impactful if the hysteria-driven policies of child isolation, school closures and forced masking continue.


Instead of suggesting rolling back these fear-driven policies, the Surgeon General calls for more government oversight and investing “in a pipeline for counselors, nurses, social workers, and school psychologists.”


In essence, the Surgeon General suggests that extending the government’s reach and spending more money will improve the mental health issues brought on by the pandemic.


Think of the embarrassment and anxiety of a hearing impaired student who can’t understand his masked teacher and classmates. What would help more: investing in more school psychologists and face shields, or providing the option to remove their masks?

Or how about the depression and confusion children might feel while eating their socially distanced lunch in the cold, knowing their parents get to eat lunch indoors, shoulder to shoulder in a restaurant? (And yes, vaccinated children still have to wear masks and practice social distancing at school). Would the government’s pricey pipeline help with this – or would the cold fingers and cognitive dissonance be relieved by bringing the students indoors?


And then there’s the psychological impact on young children who draw portraits of themselves and their friends wearing masks, because that’s now an intrinsic part of their self-identity. This isn’t the time to play politics. It’s time to address these problems head on.


Courtesy: Beth Humberd, Twitter.

As the second semester approaches, some school districts are rethinking their approaches to COVID, going mask optional or adjusting quarantine restrictions. They’re beginning to realize that these stringent COVID-related restrictions aren’t a zero-cost intervention, particularly as the Omicron variant – although highly contagious – has been shown to be less severe. And it’s increasingly likely that COVID will reach endemic status, meaning it’s a disease we will have to learn to live with, like the flu.


But there are also K-12 school districts, colleges and universities who are shutting down in-person learning altogether, due to the high transmission of Omicron.


Is it worth continuing the high risk of teen suicide to prevent what would most likely be a cough, runny nose or flu-like illness for that same teenager? In the face of this mental health emergency, will we choose to be bystanders or take action and change the course of this terrifying trend?


To get involved, consider attending and speaking at school board meetings. Connect with a group of like-minded, concerned parents and educators. Run for local office. Vote!


The report’s conclusion couldn’t have said it better: “This is the moment to demand change—with our voices and with our actions.”



This article was originally written for and published by The Lion. You can join the conversation here.