With the COVID-19 pandemic in its third year, researchers are unraveling a new epidemic in children and young adults — increased rates of depression and anxiety. Emory University experts — including Nadine Kaslow, professor and vice chair of the Emory University School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and former president of the American Psychological Association — have been outspoken on the pandemic’s exacerbation of mental health problems. 

Since 2020, children’s depression and anxiety rates have doubled to 25.2% and 20.5%, respectively.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44.2% of high school students reported experiencing persistent sadness or hopelessness, with nearly 20% seriously considering suicide and 9% attempting suicide within the 12 months prior to the survey.

(Jainee Shah/Contributing Illustrator)

Home confinement during the pandemic is a major component to the spike in poor mental health, Kaslow wrote in an email to the Wheel. Confinement not only limited social interaction with individuals of similar ages, but also increased occurrences of child abuse.

“Initially, we saw more depression and anxiety in children because of home confinement, exposure to family conflict including domestic violence and childhood maltreatment, social isolation from peers, reduced contact with supporters at school, the demands of homeschooling, missing out on important events, fears of getting sick or dying and grief due to the loss of loved ones,” Kaslow wrote. 

Certain groups’ mental health was especially affected by the pandemic. According to Kaslow, females, older youth, historically marginalized communities and those with pre-existing mental health or physical impairments have continued to to suffer from clinically elevated rates of depression and anxiety symptoms, even after in-person classes returned.

Financial strain was also found to be closely correlated with depressive symptoms. Low income families with children faced higher levels of economic hardship when compared to low income families without children, with almost half reporting difficulty paying for expenses and 16% reporting food insecurity.

“The issue of disparities was brought into even bolder relief during the pandemic,” Kaslow wrote. “What is clear is that for young people to thrive and do well emotionally, their families need assistance to meet their children’s basic needs. Having such access reduces the stress of the caregivers, which enables them to better care for their children and promote their well-being.”

Universities’ role in mental health

Some students believe that universities should be held accountable for students’ decline in mental health as well as provide more resources for individuals facing mental distress. 

Nicole Boakye (24C) expressed her dissatisfaction in how schools failed to address rapidly rising depression and anxiety rates, which she saw while graduating high school and entering Emory during the peak of the pandemic.

“Schools should check in with student mental health periodically,” Boakye said. “They need to  understand it’s a difficult time and exercise patience.” 

Creating a supportive environment in schools is a key step in addressing students’ mental health concerns, Kaslow noted. She recommended evidence-based prevention programs targeting mental and behavioral health. These programs implement strategies such as behavioral counseling, which has been found to be effective in improving mental health outcomes and in expanding mental health services to professors and other school personnel. 

Another important factor to promote wellness in children and young adults is promoting social interactions through school activities that were significantly changed or completely canceled during the pandemic, Kaslow said. This may include sports and music classes. Despite accessibility to social media, physical proximity and social interactions are important for developing meaningful friendships.

Kaslow suggested that professors can promote these social interactions by significantly reducing the number of assignments required for the course. 

“Homework just adds to the demands on young people and families in ways that overtax many family units and the payoff is not great,” Kaslow wrote. “The amount of family conflict, children feeling badly about themselves or ending up losing privileges that surround homework should be replaced with a focus on family connection, fun and emotional support.”

Arianna Lee (25C) agreed that excessive homework could contribute to the stress of students, specifically those with depression. While physical illnesses are often acknowledged with accommodations given r, she noted that mental health is often considered a secondary concern. 

“School gives excused absences when you are physically sick but not when you are mentally [ill],” Lee said. “If a student has clinical depression and a doctor can attest to it, sick days should extend to mental health days.”

Graduating high school during the pandemic, Sadie Murphy (25C) said she felt like she never received an official conclusion to her experience due to not having a graduation. 

“It almost felt like I didn’t have that transition from high school into college,” Murphy said. “It was kind of like high school never finished but there were a lot of things I was still involved in like sports and activities and academics, which I didn’t get to experience at the end, which was disappointing.”

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Executive Director Keilan Rickard said he hopes to bring to light the mental health issues caused by COVID-19 as well as the resources Emory has to aid students. Rickard encourages students to explore ways to nurture their wellbeing at Emory. Rickard noted that CAPS offers various forms of counseling and education, along with contracting with TimelyCare to provide teletherapy appointments.

Another mental health resource students can utilize is Emory Student Health Services, which provides psychiatric evaluation and medication management. Emory Student Case Management and Intervention Services also provides support for basic mental health needs and follow-up care.

Despite Emory’s mental health resources, some students reported facing obstacles, struggling to gain access to Emory’s mental health services due to the limited number of therapists and mental health faculty available to assist students.

“Emory currently has a very low number of therapists for such a large number of students, so it’s extremely hard to get multiple appointments,” Murphy said. “They only let you have a certain number of appointments per semester, which is very unrealistic for someone that is needing that help.”

While COVID-19 has sparked a series of discussions on mental health, mental health and wellness is still seen as a taboo subject. Through the pandemic, many individuals — most notably young adults — called for transparency and honesty about mental health, as well as the importance of accessibility to mental health resources, particularly through social media.

“While the stigma around mental health has improved since the pandemic, it is still something we walk on eggshells around,” Lee said.

Update (9/28/22 at 8:21 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that CAPS Executive Director Keilan Rickard uses she/her pronouns. In fact, Rickard uses he/him pronouns.