Andrea Hussong, professor and associate director of clinical psychology in the department of psychology and neuroscience, has been studying the impact of COVID-19 on adolescents’ mental health. She was lead author in a commentary for a special issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence focused on this issue and is a member of the Society for Research on Adolescence COVID-19 Response Team. She also received funding from the Carolina Seminars program for the project “Promoting Child and Youth Welfare Beyond COVID.” We spoke with Hussong on her research for University Research Week.
Note: Carolina will hold a Mental Health Summit on Nov. 15 for faculty, staff and students. Learn more and register here.
Q: What are we learning about the greatest impact on adolescents’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: Deteriorating mental health in youth emerged in studies after the first few months of the pandemic’s onset, although youth vary greatly in their experiences of and responses to the pandemic. Studies that followed youth from before the pandemic to sometime in the first six months of the pandemic report increases in adolescent depression and negative effects but also little change or even decreases in anxiety, irritability and self-injury. As the pandemic has worn on, however, youth show more consistent elevations in anxiety, depression and stress. This is particularly true for marginalized young people, such as African American, Latino, low-resourced or LGBTQ youth. This fall, more teens returned to school emotionally vulnerable. Decades of research show that these youth are more likely to struggle in the classroom academically and socially. This presents the potential for a spiraling effect, with the renewed challenges of school undermining recovery for the growing number of youth who experienced mental health challenges at the beginning of the school year.
Q: You lead an international working group of scholars looking at this issue. Why is this an important topic for global collaboration?
A: The reach of the pandemic is global, yet vulnerable groups hardest hit vary across and within countries. Understanding differences in pandemic effects across vulnerable youth aids in helping all youth in building support and reducing risks to promote resilient outcomes. The pandemic’s impact on adolescent development is rapidly changing and broad. We need many viewpoints to respond to what is happening, to anticipate what may be coming next, and to determine what of the many interventions currently being implemented to support youth are effective.
Q: What are teens saying about how this has impacted their mental health?
A: Youth in the United States are reporting that the biggest impact of the pandemic is on their mental health. As one youth told my colleague, “I know multiple friends who were … diagnosed with different things like depression, and I know that was very hard on them.” Linked to these issues are problems with focus and motivation in school, reconnecting socially and loneliness. Many youth are recovering from traumas experienced during the pandemic, including the loss of family members, the burden of growing up quickly to care for younger siblings or ill relatives, financial hardships involving food and housing insecurities, and more. One high school senior shared, “I think low-income households are being affected the most because, in the very beginning, the jobs weren’t open, and so that probably took a toll and had a lot of stress on parents.”
Q: How does COVID-19 and mental health fit in with your overall research?
A: We study adolescent development in context — whether that be young children whose mothers are in addiction recovery programs, adolescents experiencing homelessness or young adults navigating stressful life transitions into and out of college. The COVID-19 pandemic is both a shared and a personal experience, overlapping in time with the pandemics of racism, poverty, addiction and, now, a rising mental health tsunami. Development is not so much delayed by the pandemic but reshaped by it. Rather than asking high school seniors to “go back to normal” — which returns them to their sophomore years — we need to ask them and the systems that serve them to recognize their new developmental path. Our work, in many ways, is charting that new developmental path, the risks and benefits that may come with that path, and the ways to support youth resilience and thriving as they travel that path.
Q: What will your Carolina Seminars project entail?
A: With funding from the Carolina Seminars, we have established the “Care-to-Share” academic-community partnership focused on promoting child and youth welfare beyond COVID. With 15 academic and 11 community partners, we meet to exchange views on the quickly changing landscape of adolescent mental, physical, social and academic adjustment across this school re-entry period of the pandemic. Our conversations are enriched by the intersecting viewpoints of educators, health and mental health providers, child and family advocates, journalists, organizational consultants, and scholars from clinical and developmental psychology, public health, public policy, education, human development and family studies and restorative justice. Our goal is to exchange views on how we see the pandemic impacting adolescents, to examine this issue from many perspectives, and to synthesize what the group is learning for broader dissemination and program planning.
Q: As you’ve studied this ongoing global issue, what message do you want to get across to policymakers and caregivers?
A: We need significant investments in educational and family policies that support recovery as well as in mental health services. These are not separate issues but symptoms of the same —the infrastructures that support adolescent development were hit hard by the pandemic. Already insufficient before the pandemic, they are now depleted and exhausted. Incentives for recruiting and retaining teachers and counselors are imperative. But the damage to our infrastructures is much deeper than these frontline workers. We need to invest and support people working in critical positions such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians because without them schools cannot function. We need to recognize that a return to normal is not good enough nor is it even possible. We are learning much from the pandemic — about what went wrong and what was already wrong before. We can do better, we must do better, than a return to where we left off.
Interview by Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences